EAST MANATEE -- Potentially bringing new schools to Manatee County took a first, official step forward Thursday as officials from a facilities planning firm kicked off the public process with an educational futures conference.
"Gone are the days that we just find the cheapest way to build a box to house students," Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene said. "Our schools must accommodate the type of learning that our students are engaging in now and are expected to be proficient at in the future."
Two representatives from Ohio-based DeJong-Richter joined more than 175 people at Manatee Technical College's State Road 70 campus for a two-hour presentation and small group discussion on expectations for providing education in the future.
The company was hired by the Manatee County School Board in April to help the district look at all factors that go into such a wide-ranging project.
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Eventually, the company will bring possible solutions to the school board, including proposals to reroute enrollment at existing schools, close under-used schools and when, where and how
many new schools should be built.
Ultimately, the decision is up to the school board. And it's not an easy one, said DeJong-Richter Chief Executive Officer Tracy Richter.
"Everything is about being specific to your community," Richter said. "We're not going to come here and tell you what to do."
After hearing from Richter and Scott Leopold, DeJong-Richter project director, participants worked on survey questions brainstorming about what the community expects from new educational facilities.
"This is a pretty straightforward survey," Leopold said.
Groups discussed what qualities they believe students of 2035 will have and what features the school of 2035 should have, Leopold said.
Responses, which included increased school capacity and ensuring electronic devices meet changing student needs, will be used later to help guide decision-making, officials said.
The focus of the presentation and discussion was on the Manatee County School District vision and mission for educating students in the future.
"If the facilities and curriculum don't back the visions of this district, then there's no point in doing this. No point," Richter said.
Richter outlined roadblocks to success for this type of planning, which he called the "Terrible T's" -- trust, turf, tradition, time, transparency and taxes.
"Every part of this process isn't easy. Every part of this process isn't fun. There are a lot of things we'll talk about that are uncomfortable," he said.
One goal for the session was to gauge interest in serving on a community steering committee organizers want to help shape and guide the process. Even without being on the committee, Richter said there's plenty of opportunity for the public to get involved.
Richter ensured those in attendance that decisions wouldn't be made loosely.
"We're going to do things that make sense in a sustainable world because our kids demand that," Richter said.
The steering committee will set the pace of the rest of the process in meeting with the community and collecting more input through meetings yet to be scheduled, he said.
"It's a give and take," Greene said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney