Manatee girls’ school pleaded for share of tax increase. Help is on the horizon

For Emily Hogarth, an eighth-grade student at Just for Girls Middle School, the alternative education program was transformational — a vital escape from the challenges of a larger campus.

Hogarth attended a public charter school before her enrollment at Just for Girls Middle, in Palmetto, and many of her peers started their education in a traditional school. Frustrated with packed classrooms and constant distractions, she struggled to channel her energy in a positive way.

“It was just really hard to pay attention in class because there was so much noise and there were so many kids around,” she said. “It kind of suffocated me there. I had a lot of attitude. I talked back a lot and got into some fights.”

Hogarth transformed at Just for Girls, with the help of small class sizes — about 15 students per teacher — and employees who were quick to offer a listening ear and helping hand.

“My grades have gotten better,” she said. “I’ve become better at listening and paying attention, and I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of better people who improved my attitude.”

With a middle school in Palmetto and an elementary school in Bradenton, the program relies on quality employees to uplift the at-risk students. When voters approved the one-mill increase on school property taxes last year, supporting competitive salaries for public school employees, Just for Girls expected to benefit.

For the last year and a half, Just for Girls’ chief executive officer has pushed for a share of the extra tax revenue. Becky Canesse pleaded with district administrators, school board members and volunteers with the Citizens’ Financial Oversight Committee.

Her persistence may soon pay off. According to Tuesday’s meeting agenda, the school board will consider an amendment to Just for Girls’ contract, amounting to $86,000 in additional funding.

The budget increase would come from Manatee’s general budget, not the tax revenue, Canesse said.

“If this gets passed, they will have assured the same benefits of the highest quality teachers and programming for these district students,” she said. “They are district students. This is a private nonprofit — It’s not a private school.”

After voters approved the tax hike, Just for Girls increased its salaries and extended the school day, matching changes at the Manatee County School District. The money never came, and Canesse applied for a line of credit to pay for the unexpected costs.

“We did not have that money in the budget when we increased wages, and we had to do it or we would have lost teachers,” she said.

While the tax referendum included traditional schools and public charter schools, it left out “contract sites,” a list of approximately 10 programs that contract with the school district, offering students a different approach or special resources.

Many of the students will return to a traditional school after strengthening their ABC’s — academics, behavior and character — at Just for Girls.

“These are students who deserve a high-quality education, and there are many of them who have learning losses because a traditional setting just didn’t work,” Canesse said. “One size does not fit all, and that’s why the district has contracted with alternative sites.”

More than a dozen people supported Just for Girls at the Sept. 10 school board meeting, and some donned pink shirts that read, “Helping Girls Achieve Their Dreams.” Board member James Golden said he was moved by a comment from Marlene Woodson-Howard, a member of the school’s corporate board.

“The exclusion of Just for Girls is particularly painful for me because I sat on the committee to encourage passage of this referendum,” she said of the tax increase. “Never did I dream that the cause closest to my heart would not benefit.”

In a recent interview, board member Charlie Kennedy said he would advocate for a change to the referendum in 2022, when the tax increase expires. Though he was unsure of the exact language, he wanted all students to receive equitable resources.

“I’ve said it a few times: this was really a mistake of the board, because we wanted to include all students in Manatee County, but we left the word ‘contract schools’ off the referendum,” he said.

But his colleague, board Chairman Dave Miner, has consistently disagreed with Just for Girls’ definition of a public school. Canesse describes the program as a private nonprofit that contracts with the district, supporting its students through alternative education, but Miner said Just for Girls is a private school that wants public school benefits.

Miner recently took issue with a section of the pending contract amendment. It says the extra $86,000 in funding is based on the “expectation,” not the “requirement,” that Just for Girls meets at least two criteria in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

And any money afforded to contract sites is money taken away from the district’s traditional schools and public charter schools, Miner said on Friday.

“This has been the best way for us, as trustees of the public purse, to use the public money in support of the needs — and they are great — of our public employees,” Miner said.

Reina Pacheco struggled at two traditional elementary schools before she enrolled at Just for Girls Elementary. She found it easier to focus at an all-girls school, and Pacheco now attends the middle school as a seventh-grader.

“In both of those schools I used to get bullied by the boys, and that’s why I came to these schools, so I can focus more on my studies,” she said.

Pacheco said she was most impacted by the “baby project,” when she brought home a robotic infant and learned about the trials of motherhood. She awoke at 3 a.m. to a crying baby, and she was again pulled from her bed two hours later, when she had to feed and burp the realistic doll.

“It was really stressful,” she said. “It teaches you to not be a mother so early and to focus on your studies.”

Pacheco said the school offers experiences outside of the classroom, including recent trips to the Bishop Museum of Science and Nature, along with the Manatee Performing Arts Center.

But most of all, Just for Girls offered a place where help is just around the corner. Pacheco experienced the elementary and middle schools, where she found caring teachers, small class sizes and personal interactions.

“If you’re having a bad day, you can go to one of the staff and you can tell them what’s wrong,” she said. “They just sit there, talk to you and make you feel better.”