Education

Visible Men Academy charter school in Bradenton could acquire surplus land from Manatee County

MANATEE -- Visible Men Academy, an all-male charter school in the Pride Park area, could soon acquire the land it needs to expand.

After extensive discussion, the Manatee County Commission Tuesday unanimously approved county staff to draft a resolution for Visible Men Academy to purchase the surplus property at Ninth Street and 63rd Avenue East.

The county acquired the land for $800,000 with proceeds from now-disbanded community redevelopment district for a community center that was never built. The resolution could come before the commission at its June 16 meeting.

While initially earmarked for a community center, Commissioner Vanessa Baugh received a letter from Visible

Men Academy, saying it was interested in the land for the school. The school offered to pay $85,000.

Visible Men Academy, a Title I charter school in its second year at 921 63rd Ave. E., serves 93 boys with plans to serve 130 next year.

During commissioner's comments at Tuesday's meeting, Baugh brought up the proposal and how a trust company has stepped forward, willing to negotiate with the county to help the school. County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said before the commission's vote that an invitation to negotiate for the land was expected to be sent out by the end of the week.

"Let's talk about frustration for a moment," Baugh said. "Here is a group of children, boys, who in this community, this school helps tremendously. ... Now we have a trust company who is willing to negotiate to try and help VMA accomplish this task in an area that it is greatly needed. It seems to me that we need to start acting instead of just talking. Sometimes you just do the right thing because it is the right thing to do."

Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac, who ended up voting in support of a resolution, said while the county was unsuccessful in achieving the goal of a community center, she would prefer the county go through a proposal process described by Hunzeker.

"This is a community issue," Benac said. "Expanding the school is very different than a community center."

Baugh, pointing to previous unsuccessful attempts, said "chances are we aren't going to get a community center."

"I do know that this school is important," she said. "Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and do the right thing. If we want to help the community, particularly in this area, let's do it."

Commissioner Robin DiSabatino called Visible Men Academy's proposal "the next best thing" to a community center.

"It's just a win-win," she said. "We aren't going to have a community center so let's just face it."

George Mazzarantani, the attorney who sent the letter on behalf of VMA, said he understands that some on the commission are concerned about setting a precedent.

"We think that if there is any school or any activity that you can hang your hat on, I think VMA is probably one of the best ones around to do so," he said.

Neil Phillips, founder and VMA's head of school, said this is an opportunity for the school to continue to share its plans.

"We cannot accomplish what we are setting out to do without community," he said. "It is just that simple. Everything that we plan for in terms of the success of our boys and our school community relies heavily on all the things that impact their lives."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.

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