MANATEE -- The Manatee County School District is expecting 1,000 more students to start the school year -- and at least half will head into already-crowded schools east of Interstate 75.
The district has steadily been gaining about 1,000 students every year over the last few years, notes spokesman Mike Barber, which is straining resources.
Portable classrooms have been put into place to accommodate extra student.
Desperately needed new schools aren't even in the conceptual stages. Efforts to come up with money, land to build and locating the students within boundaries haven't even begun.
An Ohio-based consultant is developing a 3- to 5-year plan that might include recommendations for redistricting, new school construction and where schools should be located. The report is due to the Manatee County School Board in January.
Virgil Mills Elementary School on 69th Street East in Palmetto is among those "bursting at the seams" right now, said Principal Mike Rio. School enrollment at last count was 1,176, and five new teachers were hired for the 2015-16 year.
"We don't really know how many students are going to show up at our door," he said.
No grade level at Mills has fewer than nine classes. Families outside the direct service area are no longer allowed to choose to attend Mills because it can't serve all students in its direct area, Rio said.
Although getting a dozen teachers together for grade-level planning can be difficult, Rio credits school staff and families for keeping the school running smoothly -- and holding on to what he calls an intimate elementary school feel that comes more easily at smaller schools.
"We've got good people and we're hoping to have a good year," he said.
Housing developments are being built at a furious pace -- an estimated 1,800 homes were built last year and another 1,800 are expected in 2015, according to county numbers. Through June, 1,309 single family home construction permits have been issued this year.
The school district has not collected impact fees on new construction that help pay for costs associated with the growth, including building new schools, since July 2009.
Many district schools must use portables to provide enough room for students on campus.
Growth is not limited to East Manatee. It's also happening in other parts of the county, notes Superintendent Diana Greene.
The Bayshore area, where two large developments -- Lake Flores and Longbar Pointe -- have been approved, is another area of note, Greene said. Bayshore Elementary is exceeding capacity as is Lee Middle School. Bayshore High is at capacity, but Greene anticipates needing a new school there.
"We need a master plan," she said. "If the growth continues to happen, we need a plan in place to address it."
By the numbers
Half of the extra 1,000 students are heading into East Manatee schools where overcrowding is at its worst.
East Manatee will probably need at least one elementary school, one middle school and one high school to deal with growth, officials have said in the past, although they expect better predictions once the consultant report is complete.
Seven elementary schools already exceed capacity, according to data from January when the district did its last head count. Three others were considered near capacity and 23 have remaining capacity. Overall, district elementary schools are 86 percent full.
Of the crowded elementary schools, Braden River, Williams and Freedom are in the eastern part of the county, and Mills -- the largest elementary -- is in the growing north county. Prine, Bayshore and Moody also top capacity.
Four district middle schools exceed capacity, one is near capacity and five still have room. Overall, district middle schools are 87 percent full.
Of the crowded middle schools, Nolan and Haile are in East Manatee, and Buffalo Creek is next door to Mills. Lee Middle is on 53rd Avenue East in Bradenton.
The two eastern high schools -- Lakewood Ranch and Braden River -- are already crowded. Palmetto High is near capacity and so is Manatee High. Bayshore and Southeast high schools are not yet to capacity.
Overall, however, district high schools exceed capacity. As a whole, the district is operating at 89 percent capacity.
The district is wary to release school-by-school projections for the 2015-16 year, because it's a constantly changing number, Barber said.
"We'll know a lot more about the five-day count and the 10-day count," he said.
Five-day and 10-day counts are state-required actions that help the district accurately report the number of students in seats, numbers tied to state funding that also help the district juggle teachers and stations to keep class sizes in compliance with state laws.
Ohio-based DeJong-Richter hopes to have a final report to the school board before the end of the calendar year to detail plans for up to the next five years, including potential redistricting. That report may also include recommendations for new school construction and locations.
The board will have final say over the recommendations. Board members said they are already concerned over how to pay for new schools.
The district is considering asking county voters for approval to extend the half-cent sales tax, acquiring bond money to build new schools, and increasing the millage rate above the state-set maximum. The district is also in the midst of an impact fee study in partnership with the county, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year. The study must be completed before impact fees could be reinstated.
Board member Charlie Kennedy said the board is must define what it is going to ask from the community. Getting voter approval on all three plans, said Kennedy, will be an uphill battle as the school district works to earn public trust and approval.
But some change in funding sources is necessary.
"Our back is against the wall," Kennedy said. "If we don't pass any of that, we're going to be in crisis mode."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.