Manatee School district won't sell McKelvey Park for now

twhitt@bradenton.comMay 2, 2014 

BRADENTON -- Maybe it was public pressure or maybe it was good news from the state but either way, the Manatee County School District has dropped plans to sell McKelvey Park -- for now.

"I will not pursue selling any portion of McKelvey Park at this time," Superintendent Rick Mills said in a press release Thursday. "I cannot say that the need to revisit the issue will not surface at some time in the future. That will depend on the future financial needs of the school district."

The news comes two days after hundreds of people showed up at a meeting with Mills at Jessie P. Miller Elementary School to lobby against the sale of the park. It also comes the same day Mills received word from the state about the status of fines and penalties against the school district resulting from audits conducted in 2012-2013 by the Florida Auditor General's office.

The district is holding a press conference about the fines and penalties at 11 a.m. Friday and refused to release information about the state update Thursday.

"It sounds like we got some good news," said Manatee County District School Board member David "Watchdog" Miner. He said there were concerns state fines stemming from school operational deficiencies would force the district to sell the property.

"Whether that was part of the calculations or calculus, I hope it was a result of the pleas, the persuasions or the logic that the land not be taken away from this generation or generations to come," he said Thursday.

Miner was the only school board member to openly oppose the sale of McKelvey Park and he was out at Miller Elementary on Thursday afternoon as soon as he received word Mills was backing away from selling the park.

"I think it's a victory for everybody, particularly for the children now and in the future," Miner said. "It's a place where they play and get educated about the environment. They read out there and play out there. I am emotionally overcome with these kids and their efforts to save the park. They understand the importance of green space."

In his press release, Mills said his motivations were in the best interest of students and the schools.

"It is still my hope that the county, or the city of Bradenton, might purchase the property so it can be retained as a park in perpetuity and provide revenue to assist the school district," Mills said. "All of us have a stake in delivering a top-quality education to the children of Manatee County, because that is something that will benefit our entire community."

Lela Rast Hartsaw, who helped begin a petition to save the park, said the group is raising money to buy the park from the school district. The district's current position gives the group time to raise money and develop a plan.

"We want to save it not 'for now' but forever," she said. "Our goal is a win-win-win situation. The school district gets necessary funds, the school gets a safety buffer between the school and Manatee Avenue as well as a beautiful park and the community gets to share this park while honoring two of the area's finest residents."

W.D. Sugg and his wife, Ruth, donated the land to the school district in 1950 for educational and park purposes. In 2010, it was dedicated to Coach Bob McKelvey who taught physical education at Miller for 38 years.

"That's an icon in Manatee County," said County Commissioner Michael Gallen, who opposed selling the park. "I've been here all of my life and that's always been a park. The citizens don't know or care who owns it. They just want a park."

Mills wanted the district to consider selling the land after it received a $1.8 million unsolicited offer for the property.

"We have not balanced our budget in two years," Mills said at a board meeting in April.

The district overspent its budget by $13 million in previous years and was facing state fines up to $10 million, Mills said. County Commissioners decided Thursday to draft a letter to the state urging it to drop any district penalties or fines.

The state information received Thursday may mean the district won't have to pay any fines or penalties.

Mills said Thursday he was swayed by the public.

"As I expressed Tuesday evening, I am a firm believer in our democracy and in the right for citizens to participate in the process of governing," he said. "So I thank all of the students, parents, school staff members and concerned citizens who took the time to let their voices be heard on this matter."

Toni Whitt, education editor, can be reached at 941-745-7087. Follow her on twitter@toniTwhitt.

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