Developments over the past 10 days show the startling contrast between the haves and the have nots in primary and secondary education in Manatee County. As has been well documented over the past few years, Tallahassee favors the privatization of K-12 schooling by allocating more money for capital projects to those enterprises. Public schools are left begging for the scraps.
Some private schools are also blessed with wealthy patrons and corporations, which further widens the gap in funding. Nothing wrong with that, for sure. In fact, that's a great thing. Those students enjoy educational opportunities superior to those available in under-funded public schools.
Meanwhile, public schools also grapple with a Legislature bent on imposing policies and regulations that stifle creative and innovative approaches to education and handcuff administrators and school boards. The playing field is far from level.
All this comes into sharp focus in Manatee County as the school year begins.
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This week IMG Academy opened an impressive $11.5 million, 70,000-square-foot, three-story building with four art labs, four science labs, a media center with a computer lab, and more. All academic classes for the school's students in grade six through IMG's postgraduate program will now learn under one roof for the first time. A new student center is expected to debut later this year.
IMG is a highly respected corporate entity best known for its sports performance programs that attract athletes from around the globe. The company is an economic powerhouse in Manatee County, rightfully well appreciated in the community.
Also this week, Out-of-Door Academy debuted a $4.5 million student and STEM center, a two-story, 10,000-square-foot marvel that will serve as a science, technology, engineering and math center. The school educates children from kindergarten through 12th grade. Funding came from the Dick Vitale family, the Dart family and the Dart Foundation. ODA is also a valuable community asset.
Kudos to both IMG and ODA for expanding their academic facilities.
But imagine public schools with such facilities and the college and career opportunities that follow an education enhanced by state-of-the-art labs.
Instead, the Manatee County school district faces high hurdles in simply dealing with a growing enrollment that will soon eclipse classroom capacity. The district expects 1,000 additional students this fall when the initial enrollment numbers are tabulated. That number follows similar student increases annually over the past few years.
Half if not more of the students in the latest surge are attending the already crowded schools east of Interstate 75. Seven elementary schools and four middle schools around the county exceed capacity today. Four high schools are crowded, too, but total enrollment indicates high schools as a whole exceed capacity.
Portable classrooms are the only option since at this point school construction is yet to enter just the conceptual stage. Money, land and specific sites are not on the district's radar as it awaits a consultant's report on redistricting and construction by January.
As new housing developments blossom, the pressure on the district will increase. New schools are expected to be needed in a few years.
Here's the rub: The state won't fund school construction until a district reaches capacity, but state calculations on enrollment gains sometimes don't equal district forecasts.
The tightfisted state won't even let districts spend the local millage on school construction until benchmarks have been met. That's your property tax money being held back from local control.
When the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott boasted about boosting K-12 spending this year, they left out one key element. More than half of the $780 million increase came from property taxes paid on the local level -- to the tune of $494 million. It's not surprising Tallahassee did not bring up this shell game.
For school construction, districts can resort to a sales tax, impact fees or voter-approved borrowing. Manatee made a mistake in suspending impact fees during the recession, hoping to help boost the housing industry.
And the district is working to reinstitute those fees, but the process has been slow as the district piggybacks on a county study to evaluate the fee structure. And the current sales tax will soon be up for renewal by voters, another hurdle for public schools.
While IMG and ODA both deserve much applause for great advances, the Manatee County school district struggles under the heavy weight imposed by a state with little concern for improving public school facilities.
Shame on Tallahassee for its willful neglect.