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School choice opens for School District of Manatee County

School district will no longer provide transportation for school choice students.

Carlos E. Haile Middle School eighth grader Isabella Castro-Cardona, seventh grader Alyssa Babyak and eighth grader Kaleb Guy spend time reading. Courtesy photo.
Carlos E. Haile Middle School eighth grader Isabella Castro-Cardona, seventh grader Alyssa Babyak and eighth grader Kaleb Guy spend time reading. Courtesy photo.
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Unlike past years, families who participate in school choice in the School District of Manatee County will not be able to depend on the district to transport their children to school.

Don Sauer, the director of the district’s Office of Student Demographics, Projects and Assignment, said due to the shortage of bus drivers, the district has decided not to provide transportation for choice students starting with the 2022-23 school year, except for special programs.

Students who are using school choice to attend Palmetto High School for its Cambridge Assessment International Education program or Southeast High School or Louise R. Johnson K-8 School of International Studies for their international baccalaureate programs could have access to transportation through the district as long as the parents can get students to hubs that the transportation department will create.

Sauer said once enrollment for school choice, which runs Dec. 1-31, is complete, the transportation department will find places for families to drop off their students, and buses will pick them up to take them to school.

Sauer said the decision to not provide transportation might impact the number of families who choose to participate in school choice.

“You have to weigh out the difference of not having bus drivers, triple routes, not getting kids home on time versus offering courtesy riding to allow parents to change schools,” Sauer said. “Some decisions had to be made, and I think that’s the outcome of it.”

Besides the change in transportation, Sauer said families can expect school-choice enrollment to continue as usual.

Several East County schools are open for school choice, but a few are closed, including B.D. Gullett, Gilbert W. McNeal and Robert E. Willis elementary schools; Dr. Mona Jain Middle School; and Lakewood Ranch High School.

“A lot of families are wanting those East County schools, but that’s where our highest growth is,” Sauer said. “Until that charter school gets built out there and the K-8 gets built, it’s limited.”

Southwest Charter Foundation, a nonprofit that runs eight charter schools across the state including Manatee Charter School, is partnering with Charter Schools USA in hopes of opening Lakewood Ranch Charter Academy next year.

The school district also has included the construction of a K-8 school on a 40-acre site a quarter-mile east of Uihlein Road and south of Academic Avenue in Lakewood Ranch. Construction on the elementary portion of the school could be done in 2022-23.

Sauer said the district closes an elementary school for school choice once the school reaches 90% of its capacity. Although Gullett, McNeal and Willis elementary schools have had additions built on the campuses in the past few years, most recently a six-classroom addition at Willis Elementary that increased the school’s capacity from 720 to 818 students last year, the schools are either near capacity or over capacity. Gullett Elementary School is over capacity by 360 students.

When it comes to middle and high schools, the district looks at trends in population growth and will allow schools to reach up to 95% capacity until it is closed for school choice.

Lakewood Ranch High School is closed due to the school being 578 students over capacity.

Although Braden River High School sits at 93% capacity, the school remains open for school choice.

All East County middle schools will be open for school choice except Dr. Mona Jain Middle School, which opened in August 2019.

“Mona Jain is kind of unique in that they had room for a lot of choice and hardship, and people took advantage of it,” Sauer said. “Then you had that explosion of growth between Lorraine Road and Lakewood Ranch Boulevard, and they filled up with people that are in their attendance zone.”

Although the district won’t be hosting its Showcase of Schools, where families are able to see what different schools within the county have to offer, Sauer said families can work with individual schools to set up tours and answer questions. Sauer said individual schools also can host their own open houses.


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