BRADENTON -- For community members concerned about the future of the Manatee County School District -- where new schools should go, what to do about poorly performing schools and how to map out where students will attend classes -- Wednesday is one of the last opportunities to provide ideas for shaping the district's next two decades.
The district will hold its second and final community dialogue from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in Bayshore High School's cafeteria, focusing on options to address overcrowding at some schools
and the under-utilization of other district schools.
The district hired DeJong-Richter, an Ohio-based consulting firm, to help sift through data and facilitate the process, which kicked off in September.
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Along with DeJong-Richter, a 30-member steering committee has worked since September to examine options and create Wednesday's survey. Members include teachers, parents, retirees, district staff and community leaders.
After Wednesday, the steering committee will analyze survey results and design a proposal to be presented to the school board in January. After that, it's up to the board to make the final decision, and that's why members of the steering committee say Wednesday is such an important day.
"People have to participate," said Allen Converse, a committee member and 62-year-old Parrish resident. Two of Converse's four children have gone through Manatee County schools, and he's a past chairman of the school advisory council at Southeast High School. "This community dialogue will have concrete choices."
With housing construction booming in the northern and eastern parts of the county, schools in those areas are quickly becoming crowded. At the same time, zoning patterns, public perception and the district's choice program have left quite a few schools in the central area of the county with empty seats.
The long-range facilities project is expected to even out that inequity and keep an eye on future enrollment patterns, which most likely will include proposing more than one new school.
All about the money
"We can do a lot of things, but it takes money," said Norm Nelson, an 83-year-old retiree who has taken an active interest in how his tax dollars are spent within the school system. Nelson is also a member of the steering committee.
The options that will be presented on Wednesday for community members to rank and discuss include some "wish list" items, options that would be ideal if money was not an issue, but also some more "reasonable" options, things that might be done at low cost. Redistricting is the most cost-effective option, meaning students would first be sent to the under-utilized schools in the county's central corridors.
The school board is already prepared to build new schools and has sent a resolution to county commissioners, asking for school impact fees -- fees paid on newly built homes in the county -- to be reinstated next year. School impact fees have been suspended since 2009, when the economy tanked. County commissioners will vote Jan. 9 on whether to reinstate those fees, which can be used on projects related to growth, including building new schools, adding onto existing schools or buying more buses.
The district may also ask the public to reauthorize a half-cent sales tax, which is set to expire in 2017. That money would also help pay for new construction.
A third option is raising local taxes above the maximum set by the state.
To do that, the district would have to convince voters to approve it in a referendum. The district also could borrow money through bonds to pay for new growth.
But that also requires voters to sign off on it.
Wednesday's survey will try to gauge reaction to all of the options.
The district estimates a new elementary school costs between $20 million and $23 million, a new middle school costs between $28 million and $32 million, and a new high school can cost between $70 million and $80 million.
Some of the options include adding new, attractive programs at some of the under-utilized schools -- an effort to encourage students and families to take advantage of the choice option and choose to go to that school, freeing some spots elsewhere in the county.
"If we open up our eyes and think a little bit outside the box, I think we'd be amazed at what we can do," said Jensina Barnes, a member of the steering committee and a 43-year-old ESE resource teacher at Oneco Elementary School.
Barnes has worked in the county for 13 years and has a son in kindergarten at Oneco. "We have to look at what is best for all students."
Steering committee members fear that people who didn't offer input will be upset when the options go to the board for consideration.
"My whole philosophy of life is 'If you want to change something, you have to get involved,'" Nelson said.
Members of the steering committee praised the district's process, saying transparency and public participation are vital.
"The board has really stepped back and let the community truly participate," Barnes said. "I'm very excited they're allowing that."
Having that buy-in and that sense of ownership is key, Converse said.
"It's important for the public to know it hasn't been just the school district saying this is what we're going to do," he said.
Having the company involved was also valuable, Nelson said, because they were able to take mountains of data from the school district and put it into digestible chunks for the steering committee to consider. But the steering committee is just a small group.
"We need everybody's opinion," he said.
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.