Politics & Government

Florida Gov. Rick Scott makes secret visit to Freedom Elementary in Manatee

EAST MANATEE -- Gov. Rick Scott made a surprise visit to Freedom Elementary on Monday morning to tell fourth-graders what it's like to be governor.

"The goal was to tell all these children that anything is possible," Scott said outside the school. "They can be governor, they can be president, they can build a business, they can be a great teacher and they can be a principal."

Jim Mennes, principal of Freedom Elementary, said his fourth-graders had sent letters to Scott in November asking him to visit the school. Scott's office originally said he couldn't make it, but told school administrators last week that he would come if it was kept a secret.

"He said if this showed up on Facebook or in the papers that he wasn't coming," Mennes said. "We were sworn to secrecy."

Mike Barber, spokesman for the Manatee County School District, said reporters were not allowed in the building while Scott spoke to students. Jeri Bustamante, spokeswoman for Scott's office, said he wanted to take the time to focus on students, and reporters were limited to questions specifically about the event as he left.

Scott and Mennes said students asked mostly about the benefits of being governor.

"I told them all the fun parts," Scott said. "I told them you get to live in a mansion, there's a chef there and you can eat pizza or ice cream whenever you want ... and you get to help people."

Mennes said it was the first time since Freedom Elementary was founded 13 years ago that a governor has visited. They've been writing letters asking governors to visit for the past six or seven years.

"It was a big excitement," he said. "The kids got the opportunity to ask the governor questions, he talked to each classroom and we took a group photo with him."

Mennes said in addition to the letters, fourth-graders put together a scrapbook about Florida and were learning about Florida history.

Students in one fourth-grade classroom said they didn't know Scott was coming until he walked in the door, and they all got excited and nervous.

"You don't hear a knock on the door and think that a leader of your state is going to walk in," said 10-year-old Jadeyn Lorentzen. "Our teacher was surprised and she started sweating."

"I really want to be governor someday now," said 10-year-old Delaney O'Neal.

Barber said by the time Scott had finished talking to each classroom, all the students said they wanted to be governor someday.

"He asked them in the beginning to raise their hands if they wanted to be governor, and about half went up," Barber said. "When he asked the same question at the end, all the hands went up."

Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055 or at kirby@bradenton.com. You can follow her on Twitter@Kate Irby.