Rowlett's conversion charter could take over Harllee Middle School in consolidation plans suggested to Manatee County School Board

Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in the school courtyard on Friday as part of the school's annual celebration. MEGHIN DELANEY / Bradenton Herald
Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication students stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in the school courtyard on Friday as part of the school's annual celebration. MEGHIN DELANEY / Bradenton Herald

BRADENTON -- The school board is trying to be creative in spreading students to some of its underutilized and unpopular schools and may even consider allowing Rowlett Academy for Arts and Communication to use Harllee Middle School to open a charter middle school.

"They've demonstrated an ability to get students to choice into their school," board member Bob Gause said during a workshop Tuesday. "I believe they have the capacity to do it at Harllee Middle School. They've in

dicated they'd like to try. It's a win-win for us."

The school board was asked to discuss their preferences related to options presented at a previous school board meeting. The district contracted with DeJong-Richter, an outside company, to look at its needs as a whole and to develop scenarios to help relieve crowded schools and increase enrollment in underutilized schools.

In January, the board was offered options that had been vetted by a community group. At the time, the board asked for more time to mull those options. On Tuesday, the board was expected to voice their preferences, but also came up with their own ideas.

The board only discussed middle and high schools during the workshop.

Manatee County School District Superintendent Diana Greene said it was clear that the board agrees with building another high school.

"How we get there will be a whole 'nother workshop," she added

Estimates for a new high school could be upward of $100 million and the district doesn't have money set aside for that.

Other options, including combining the international baccalaureate program at Wakeland Elementary School with the IB program at Johnson Middle School, did not provide an easy consensus.

DeJong-Richter is proposing a new middle school to help deal with overcrowding at Haile and Nolan middle schools. They also included options of moving Wakeland out of a poorly constructed building into Johnson and/or re-purposing Harllee Middle as an ESE center and redistricting children to other schools.

Wakeland Principal Mario Mendoza spoke to the board on Tuesday, asking for a quick decision.

"My request is that a decision be made sooner rather than later, not one that gets dragged out over a long period of time," he said.

The potential change is having an effect during the choice open enrollment period, Mendoza said, where parents who are on both sides of the issue aren't sure whether they want to send their children to the school because of the uncertainty.

Gause also floated the idea of Rowlett -- a former magnet elementary school that converted to a charter and has initiated plans to open a middle school during the 2017-18 academic year -- may be able to move into Harllee and help balance middle school enrollment.

Rowlett Principal Brian Flynn agreed a new middle school charter could help the district.

"If it benefits them and if it benefits us, why not," Flynn said after the workshop Tuesday.

A number of logistical issues need to be worked out, Flynn said. Rowlett continues to look at other locations for a charter middle school.

The district would have to address some issues if they want to allow Rowlett to operate a charter middle school, including moving some of the existing exceptional student education programs at Harllee to other schools.

"I don't know what all the legal steps that would have to be taken," Gause said. "I'm just looking at it as a way to pull students into a school facility."

Board chairwoman Karen Carpenter agreed that she hoped the board could be able to make some decision soon, but board vice chairman Charlie Kennedy said the board should probably be able to discuss the options during a longer workshop.

"There's so many moving parts to consider," Kennedy said. "We need a good four or five hour workshop on this and that still may not even get us to a decision."

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