DUETTE — Each weekday morning, retired Bradenton resident Donna King gets in her car and drives 26 miles to Florida’s last remaining one-room school house in rural Duette.
The 62-year-old woman — principal and teacher at the school for 18 years — isn’t getting paid to do it, either.
The private foundation that runs the school doesn’t have the money to pay King, who retired in December, then returned to her former post the next month to keep the 80-year-old school alive. In December, the Manatee County School District handed the school over to the community to run, saying it no longer made financial sense to keep such a small school open.
“She agreed until we get the funds she’d work for us like this, because she doesn’t want to see the school close,” said Duette Education Foundation President Gerald Groover. The foundation, he said, does pay for her health insurance.
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So King presses on because of the students, and because she feels the school has a place in the community. But it’s unclear if the community still supports the school.
There are 83 children in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth grade who live in the area that used to be zoned to Duette a few years back. Of the 83, only 10 attend Duette. Two others also attend — one from Hillsborough County, not far from the north Manatee school on State Road 62. The other is the school’s only fourth-grader and King’s granddaughter from Bradenton.
If all the students who live within Duette’s school zone were to attend, it could thrive, she said.
But she presses on. With the little money she gets from the state and foundation, she pays bills and her two staffers — a teacher’s aide and a custodian.
Her students and their success drive her to stay and continue Duette’s legacy.
“When I think about these young kindergartners getting on a bus and traveling two or three hours a day to school, that’s why we need to be here,” she said.
She also recalled a day last year when someone asked a student if they had 60 seeds, what would they grow.
“The student said he’d grow 60 Miss Donnas. That’s why I work here for nothing,” she said.
Although the school lost three fourth-graders last year, it managed to gain six kindergarten students to maintain its enrollment at 12.
This year King said she’s working with a $139,500 budget that covers utility bills, salaries and school supplies.
Although the school didn’t lose enrollment this year, district leaders anticipate the school will only get about $50,000 in state funding. That means the foundation needs to find the remaining $90,000.
“An out-of-town financial institute has made a commitment of more than $10,000 and we expect to receive it soon,” said Groover, who fought for months to keep the school open.
The foundation, he said, has also been in talks with local businesses about donations.
“We’re trying to raise funds any way we can from any source we can,” Groover said. “It seems to be running smooth other than the low funds.”
King also is making strides to raise money by hosting a Fall Festival fundraiser. The event is set from noon to 4 p.m. Nov. 13 at the school. In addition to food and games, there will be a silent auction, a fishing trip and fresh vegetables for sale.
She’s hoping to raise about $3,000 to pay for a Christmas surprise (a Santa visit) and a field trip.
Until then, she can only pray the community comes through with help.
“I believe in this school,” she said. “People say, why are you spending money on that small school, but when you come here, you’ll see.”
On Thursday 8-year-old Daniel Azua sat inside the school’s cafeteria eating lunch and speaking in Spanish to his cousin, who also attends Duette. Across the table sat King eating a salad. She politely interrupted their conversation and the three tablemates began chatting in English.
“He came to Duette in kindergarten and didn’t speak any English,” she said after finishing her conversation with the boys. “Look at him now.”
Azua and his cousin Omar Cruz, a second-grader, then began chatting about their favorite food to eat during lunch.
Pizza came in first place for the boys. When asked what else they liked at Duette, Daniel quickly responded, “Miss Donna.”
Although she covers the district’s curriculum, she said, it doesn’t drive how she teaches.
“The children’s needs do,” she said. “I help these children learn where they are (educationally). I’m here because I have the freedom to do that.”
Although the school is broke, she ideally wants to hire a teacher to help so she can work part-time.
“I can’t afford to stay here forever,” said King, as she brushed her short, white stylish hair. She glanced down at her white button-down shirt with “Duette Elementary” stitched in red on the left pocket.
She said if she ever does find someone as her replacement, there are strict requirements for the potential hire.
“I’m looking for someone who wants to teach in a one-room school house and, most of all, to build,” she said.