Population growth in East Manatee County is forcing officials to build and expand schools faster than you can say your ABCs.
While the influx of retiring baby boomers into the Sunshine State has received a lot of attention, Manatee County is also experiencing a population explosion from the other end of the age spectrum. Every year for the past 10 years, a thousand new K-12 students have flooded the school system. Classrooms — particularly in East Manatee County — are feeling the squeeze.
In response to this boom, residents voted in 2016 in favor of a half-cent sales tax to help fund two new East County schools: the $90 million North River High School, in Parrish, and a $45 million (as-yet-to-be-named) middle school scheduled to break ground this spring next to B.D. Gullett Elementary.
Many of the area’s existing structures are being overhauled and expanded as well. School renovations and additions are slated for four more schools in East County, including two new 200-person wings at Lakewood Ranch High School and Gene Witt Elementary School, a new 100-person wing (and portables) at B.D. Gullett Elementary School and a complete renovation and addition at Robert E. Willis Elementary School.
The pressure on area schools to accommodate a growing student body signals a shift in the region’s reputation as a landing pad for retirees and empty nesters. Although Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research forecasts that senior citizens will make up more than 50% of the state’s growth over the next 12 years, the number of children will rise by 15%.
“We definitely have more of a mix now,” says Diana Greene, superintendent of the Manatee County School District. “In 2008, we barely hit 40,000 students. We’re close to 50,000 students this year. We’re a diverse community of both families and retirees.”
North River High, the new middle school and the B.D. Gullett expansion are all fast-tracked to open for the 2019 school year. North River High will begin its first year with incoming freshmen and sophomores.
Greene says the district has no other immediate plans to build or expand schools following this surge. However, the number of families moving out east will only increase as development increases, so the district has already discussed a long-range plan with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch regarding the acquisition of land between State Road 64 and State Road 70.
What’s bringing the new kids to town?
Housing, amenities and great schools, says Patricia Sisson.
Sisson has taught at Braden River Middle School for nine years and has a daughter in her junior year at Lakewood Ranch High School.
“Every time you turn around, there’s a new housing development going up,” she says. “When we first looked into moving here, we checked out Lakewood Ranch. The master plan is just so good. And the teachers are really good in East County, too. Why wouldn’t you choose schools that always have A ratings?”
Nicole Merriman moved to Lakewood Ranch in 2012 from Rochester, N.Y., with her husband and two teenage daughters, who now attend Braden River High School. “We chose Lakewood Ranch because the schools had really good ratings,” Merriman says. “Plus, it’s very family friendly with a lot of activities. There’s always something going on; that’s the biggest lure for people with kids.”
Merriman admits the schools are a tad overcrowded. “Lakewood Ranch just grew so fast,” she says. “I’m actually impressed with how quickly they’re building schools to keep up with the growth.”
Both Greene and Sisson say the challenge now is to attract and retain high-performing teachers. Minimum starting salaries for educators in Sarasota County is nearly $4,000 higher than Manatee County, which has been a hiring hurdle for East County administrators. In November 2016, the School Board of Manatee County voted to authorize a special tax referendum for a 1-mill property tax increase to make salaries even in both counties.
Voting on the referendum takes place in March. Greene hope taxpayers are able to see past the increase and recognize the real-world benefits of bumping up teacher salaries. Better pay begets better teachers, which begets better schools. “It would make a huge difference,” Sisson says. “Incoming teachers can be really picky about where they go.”
Merriman simply chalks it up to paying it forward.
“If they want to increase the tax to pay the teachers more, I’m fine with that,” she says. “Teachers deserve more than what they get.”
"Every time you turn around, there’s a new housing development going up.”