Over the past three years, Manatee School for the Arts has been slowly buying up properties behind its 700 Haben Blvd. location.
The charter school is in need of more space for classrooms, officials say. Different programs are being added each year, and eight of their teachers don't have a space of their own.
"They had to share classroom spaces with teachers that had a vacancy in their block," the school's chief financial officer Sandy Deitrich recently told the Bradenton Herald. "That's just too much for a teacher to carry their supplies."
When the school began 20 years ago, they had 250 sixth and seventh graders, according to their website. Data from the state education department shows that Manatee School for the Arts, now expanded to grades 6 through 12, had an enrollment last year of 2,066.
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Over the past four school years, enrollment at the charter school has grown by 439 students, a kind of growth not even matched by Manatee public high schools that have similar enrollments. The only other 6-12 charter school in the county, State College of Florida Collegiate School, saw a 44-student increase in four years.
In May, Manatee School for the Arts leaders put out a request for proposal for help in updating their campus master plan. Some of their priorities include "expanding high school facilities to include classrooms, cafeteria, media center and miscellaneous space for various student uses," "creating a facility to house classes in visual and graphic arts" and "expanding the current theater space with an emphasis on increasing seating by at least 300."
Excluding the nearly 11-acre campus, which is within the Palmetto city limits, Manatee School for the Arts has nearly 9 extra acres to work with. They hope the city of Palmetto will annex the parcels, which are now in the county's jurisdiction.
The school might not be done with the buying spree.
"When the parcels become available, that's when we try to pick them up," Deitrich said.
Some of the strategy to plan for the future has involved offering residents money for their homes. One resident on 15th Avenue Drive East, who declined to name themselves, said the school offered to buy their home below value, even though it wasn't up for sale.
"We don't do what most customers would do, pay sticker price. We always negotiate," the school's board of directors president David Kraner recently told the Bradenton Herald. "No property out there is so valuable that we have to have it."
The resident said that their street has been noisy with the school's demolition projects over the past month. One morning, crews transported an entire house out of the neighborhood at 4 a.m., they said.
"Chain saws. Heavy equipment. Up and down the road," the resident said. "You want to sleep at 4 o'clock in the morning. You do not want to be woken up."
Through its nonprofit Manatee Arts and Education, Inc., the school has spent nearly $2.5 million to buy 11 homes, according to property records. Some of those properties, sharing a border with the school on the east side of 15th Avenue Drive East, were razed because they were in a "dilapidated condition" and a "health hazard," Kraner said.
For now, the school is setting up portable classrooms, as many as 15 according to a permit with the city of Palmetto. On a recent afternoon, a semitrailer carrying a portable carefully navigated neighborhood street as a bulldozer moved rubble nearby.
School officials weren't sure yet on what would be on the space. Deitrich said the properties would "make great green spaces." Kraner said they "may in the future be used in the expansion." Nevertheless, the proposal will have to go before the city of Palmetto for approval.
“For the next year, we seriously doubt we’re going to build at all,” Deitrich said.