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Closing schools on the horizon for Manatee?

MANATEE — Here’s the breakdown:

High schools have 1,290 of them.

Middle schools top that number with 1,945.

But the elementaries lead with 3,753.

They are the desks that sat vacant last year in Manatee County schools.

And with $50 million needing to be cut from the budget over the next three years, school district leaders might have no choice but to eventually close or consolidate schools to save money.

“The fact is we have empty seats and are concerned about it,” said school board member Harry Kinnan. “But there’s a lot of reservations about closing any schools. A lot of factors we take into account before that.”

During the real estate boom in the early to mid-2000s, enrollment within the district started increasing by 1,300 students each school year.

So Manatee’s school leaders did what was needed.

They built more schools. Nearly a dozen of them.

But enrollment isn’t climbing like it once was, which translates into about 7,000 empty seats.

“Even though we’re growing, we’re not growing at 5 percent a year like we were in previous years,” said Jim Drake, the district’s assistant superintendent of finance. “We’re growing at about 2 percent now.”

Within the district, 37 out of 51 schools last year were under capacity.

At the elementary level, 24 of 35 schools had too many seats. Gullett Elementary led the pack with 370 available seats.

In middle schools, nine out of 10 were under capacity, with Johnson Middle School leading at 569.

At the high school level, four out of six had too many seats. At 691, Bayshore had the most.

Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said the district’s budget committee has recommended to district leaders that they review data from all the schools including enrollment, age and physical condition to determine if it’s feasible to close any of them in the future.

“We certainly aren’t planning on closing any schools during the upcoming school year,” McGonegal said. “But if in 2011-12 we need to save $14, $15, or $20 million, we’ll need to look at some tough choices.”

Choices, he said, that include consolidating elementary and middle schools.

Currently, there is no kindergarten through eighth grade school in the district. So district leaders will mull over whether to reconfigure one or two schools, he said.

Meanwhile, the school board is seeking feedback from parents and residents, said school board member Barbara Harvey.

“We are looking into every arena for saving money,” Harvey said. “We’re going to look at all alternatives and we’re asking the public to e-mail us if they have some suggestions to save funds and not have a negative effect on the student’s progress.”

Parents and residents with cost-saving ideas can contact the school board through its website at www.manatee schools.net.

Natalie Neysa Alund, education reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7095.

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