As is the case with most school boards in Florida’s ever-expanding economy, Manatee County faces daunting challenges — namely, shortages in teachers and transportation. At Tuesday’s school board meeting that followed an afternoon workshop, members dealt with those issues head-on.
And the timing could not have been better. Manatee faces a shortage of bus drivers with a fleet of buses in need of repair or replacement, and there are increasing needs for teachers and substitutes. In 2019, three public schools — a high school, middle school and elementary school — are planned to open.
“We’re going to have more buses on the road; we’re going to have more students,” Chairman Scott Hopes said.
A reserve fund balance of about $25 million, up significantly from an $8.5 million deficit in 2013, is one alternative in helping to resolve those issues. So is a March 20 special election that could raise county property taxes by one mill. Early voting for the referendum, which would raise property taxes ($1 per $1,000 of assessed property value), begins Feb. 20. That date also is the deadline for voters to register for the special election.
The upcoming vote notwithstanding, the transportation department is in dire need of a financial boost. On Tuesday, board members unanimously voted to purchase 16 customized buses at a price not to exceed $1.9 million.
“We would not be asking for a penny if it wasn’t drastically needed,” said Ron Ciranna, deputy superintendent of business services and operations. “This is a safety issue for our kids.”
Getting drivers for those buses, however, is another story. Superintendent Diana Greene reported that 40 drivers were out Monday and another 37 on Tuesday. She also has fielded calls from parents telling her that their children are being cheated out of an education because they cannot get to school on time. There have been reports of drivers being 30 to 45 minutes behind schedule — in part due to some parents not being at a stop to greet their youngsters— to and from school with some drivers doubling up on routes.
“We are failing our students because we can’t get them to school,” Greene said. “There are no good answers, only to say that we do not have enough drivers. We’re beyond ineffective. We’re in crisis mode.”
Hopes asked the administration to come up with a proposal to deal with the bus driver issue at the board’s next meeting: “It’s a crisis. We need a solution, regardless of what the taxpayers do.”
Before Tuesday’s meeting, board members convened to establish a Citizen’s Financial Advisory Committee, which will advise board members on future expenditures and oversights. Despite belaboring an objection from member Dave Miner about a bullet point on sales tax revenue, the new committee was unanimously approved. Members include: John Horne, Charles Tokarz, Stewart Moon, Robert Stanell, Dr. Timothy Novak, Diana Dill, Laurie Breslin, Robert Christopher, Steve Cervin and legal counsel Cornelle Maxfield.
Also on the agenda Tuesday, JROTC teams from Manatee, Braden River and Bayshore high schools were recognized for winning state championships.
Additionally, Barbara Harvey was applauded for 50-plus years as a Manatee County educator and administrator.
“Children aren’t our future. They are our right now,” she said.