School board debates selling Miller Elementary land for $1.8M or more

rdymond@bradenton.comApril 9, 2014 

MANATEE -- A school district running a deficit into the millions and desperate for cash.

A developer offering $1.8 million cold cash for the three grassy acres in the north end of Jessie P. Miller Elementary School's property.

A school advisory council at Miller that doesn't want to see the land sold and is concerned about safety.

Should the school district declare the little-used parcel at the corner of 43rd Street West and Manatee Avenue West as surplus and sell to Redstone Investments , a Tampa developer offering $1.8 million to turn the land into retail, or some other developer perhaps offering even more?

That conundrum led School District of Manatee County board members into a a civil, but heated discussion at a board workshop Tuesday.

No vote was taken, but the decision to sell all of the property, some of it, or none of it is expected to come back before the board in May, said Jane Dreger, the school district's Director of Capital Projects.

Dreger informed the board that she had a meeting with the Miller School Advisory Council, also known as SAC, on Sept. 9, 2013.

"Their concerns were safety, loss of property and what will be developed there," Dreger said. "They also asked that the school get part of the money if the land must be sold."

Dreger said the Miller SAC did not indicate that the land had been dedicated as a park. But, according to Herald archives, this mostly grassy field, which was where the old Jessie P. Miller School was located, was dedicated by the school in 2010 as McKelvey Park in honor of Bob McKelvey, who taught physical education at Miller for 38 years. It doesn't appear to be an official Manatee County park, however.

The $1.8 million offer from Redstone came in as a "rogue" offer, even before the property has been declared surplus and put up for sale, Dreger said.

"We could even get more for it if it officially goes up for sale," Dreger said.

School board member Dave "Watchdog" Miner was aware that the land was renamed McKelvey Park by the school and said that while he appreciates the financial squeeze the district is in, selling McKelvey Park cuts into the heart of Manatee County history.

"There was a promise made by former leaders that this land would always remain a park," Miner said of the parcel, which borders Westgate Shopping Plaza and the Publix on its east side and 43rd Street West on the west.

Miner said if the land is developed, he fears for school children who live north of the school and must cross Manatee Avenue West. A retail area would add to already busy traffic, he told the board.

"I live nearby and walk and jog the area and see the traffic," Miner said.

Julie Aranibar, who, according to her fellow board members, is helping restore the district by scrutinizing every detail as board chairwoman, said she loves aesthetics, but has to look at the whole picture.

"I sat down in that field," Aranibar said. "No children play at 43rd Avenue West and Manatee Avenue West. It reminds me of when Braden River Elementary talked about a wall to protect children in their park near State Road 70. Some parents realized a car could drive through that wall. I just don't see a park in that area. It comes down to that we are not considering selling it because we want to, we are considering selling it because we need to."

Board member Karen Carpenter called the land "an oasis" in the busy Manatee Avenue West corridor, but she believes given the financial shape the district is in, at least some of the three acres must be declared surplus and sold.

"I propose we keep part of the land that has access to Westgate Plaza and make a park there, like an oasis," Carpenter said.

Rick Mills, superintendent of the Manatee School district, said that whatever he proposes, the safety of the children will be his first priority.

"We will bring back a proposal, and if that proposal is to make the property for sale, I will assure you that, with the proceeds, we can put sidewalks in that area so the children would have safe access east and west," Mills said. Mills also stated, in the firmest of tones, that no Manatee County school will ever be given money if some of its land is sold.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @RichardDymond.

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