Manatee County School District's long-term planning could bring redistricting, new schools

BRADENTON -- With increased student enrollment, continuous new building and an ever-expanding eastward reach in the county, Manatee County School District officials are taking new steps to address the long-term plans for the district.

Those plans will shape the future of the district -- and could mean redistricting zones for school attendance, building new schools and, potentially, closing down some schools.

On Tuesday, the board will discuss hiring an outside company to perform a long-range master planning survey of the district and outline what duties the company should perform.

Taking this step has been on the mind of Superintendent Rick Mills since he first arrived in the district.

"It was pretty evident to me that we needed a comprehensive long-term plan," Mills said.

Robert Johnson, the district's director of planning and performance management, will present the request for proposal plan to the board.

The company would perform a countywide assessment looking at economic, social and environmental factors that could affect a student's education experience, and report back to the board with recommendations for the board to consider. Mills didn't have a cost estimate for the contract, but said he hopes to have recommendations for the board to consider in four to six months from when the contract is awarded.

"If we don't plan, then we tell new students and fam

ilies we weren't ready for you," said outgoing board member Barbara Harvey, whose last board meeting and workshop will be on Tuesday. "It is to the advantage of our board to prepare for these children."

Long-term planning has been a sticking point for the district lately, as an additional 1,000 students have enrolled in the district in each of the past two years. Student-count data shows increasing enrollment in schools in East Manatee, where the district's newest schools, among them Gullett and Williams Elementary and Braden River High School, have been built in recent years.

This year, the district is still working to hire enough teachers and find enough space in schools to handle the increased growth.

And, while enrollment numbers have been dropping off in the western half of the county, two large proposed projects are on the horizon that will change that.

Whiting Preston, president of Manatee Fruit Co., has filed plans with Manatee County for a community he's calling Lake Flores, featuring 6,500 residences -- half of them single-family houses -- about 1 million square-feet of retail space, 2 million square-feet of office space and 375- and 125-room hotels.

And Carlos Beruff, president of Tallevast-based Medallion Home, and Larry Lieberman of the Barrington Group in Sarasota, are seeking to build at least 3,520 homes in a multi-family configuration, 100,000 square-feet of commercial space and a 260-slip marina. Their plans have also included a hotel, conference center, office space and single family homes.

The board will discuss the expectations for the vendor during Tuesday's board workshop. The district plans to have the company host a number of meetings with different stakeholders throughout the process -- which Mills estimated may take four to six months -- including gathering feedback from the community at five meetings.

The company would also create maps of recommended zone boundaries for each school, including lists of streets and address ranges for each school. The company would provide a map of the entire district, as well.

Time sensitive issue

Staff members have spent the last six months gathering data and information to create the request for proposal. Once a company is hired, that information will be turned over immediately and serve as a jumping-off point.

"We're going to have to jump on this quickly," he said. "We cannot afford to wait long-term to make the decisions."

That's evident with the 2014-15 school year. For the second straight year, the district has seen a jump in enrollment of 1,000 students and needs to hire more teachers. Mills said school officials are working to maximize all possible space in the school buildings and from portables.

"We have to address some of these needs this year and we will," Mills said.

Board member Bob Gause agreed, saying the economic recession stalled the district's growth.

"Now, we've got growth again," Gause said. "We're back in a growth mode."

This is a bigger growth mode, because it's affecting the whole county, Gause said, instead of concentrated in just one area of the country in the last growth mode.

"The issue is bigger now, we have to look at the whole district," he said.

Community involvement

Creating a long-term plan is complicated and must be done correctly to ensure that one decision made to help one area doesn't have a negative ripple effect in other areas, Mills said.

That's why he wants the plan done by professionals, with immense input from district officials, the school board and, most importantly, the community.

"In the end, our schools belong to the community," Mills said.

The district will ask the vendor to meet with stakeholders and district staff five times while developing options, present plan options to the board at two in-person meetings throughout the process, and present plan options and gather feedback from the community at a series of five meetings, according to the presentation.

Community involvement in the process is important to Mills for a number of reasons. The community knows the area best, and the issues of potentially redistricting and closing or opening new schools can tug at the heartstrings and be contentious.

"The best way to avoid that is extensive community involvement," Mills said.

Harvey said it was "almost imperative" to have communities, especially parents, involved in the conversation.

And Gause stressed a two-pronged process.

"You have to look long-term and you have to plan long-term," Gause said. "Otherwise you'll be reactive from this point forward."

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.