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New schools continue to be a growing topic

The big question is when to forge ahead with new schools in a slowing real estate market.

(File photos)
(File photos)
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To me, it's the most interesting race in East County, and it is not political in nature.

It's the race to build schools.

On Aug. 24, the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance put the two superintendents of the school systems of Manatee and Sarasota counties together at the Grove in Lakewood Ranch and allowed them to discuss their districts. Cynthia Saunders (Manatee) and Brennan Asplen (Sarasota) spent an hour talking about their accomplishments and the future.

Although that took awhile, the conversation came around to new schools, a topic just about everyone knows is important in the region because people have been arriving in Florida at the speed of the California Gold Rush.

If you live in the Waterside at Lakewood Ranch neighborhoods that reside in Sarasota County, your ears probably perk up when people talk about new schools. If you have school-aged children, you might be a bit worried.

Call the race "growth" in the No. 1 car versus "new schools" in the No. 13. Growth is racing to the lead, and the No. 13 car, well, it's just having all kinds of bad luck.

Sarasota County Schools — and the School District of Manatee County, for that matter — is in a bind because it is limited due to growth and building rules set by the Florida Department of Education. The process includes projecting the number of students in the district expected over the next five years. The projections, though, are created by the DOE.

Simply put, the state is trying to figure out if all the students are going to have a seat when the music stops. And if they don't, is it only a temporary condition? That can be tough when you are trying to factor in inflation and the real estate market. Can you adequately calculate growth in an area that has bucked the national trend when it comes to growth? Do you need to be cautious when you can't be sure what the national economy is going to do, or what party might be in charge in two years?

It makes a lot of sense because the DOE doesn't want a bunch of empty schools in case people decide Florida isn't so great and they want to move to, say, Georgia. Or if people no longer have the money to buy their Florida dream home.

Moving cautiously would be the norm for most communities, but in our neck of the woods, it leads to a lot of portables on school campuses.

Both school districts are working hard to come up with the right formula, but this isn't an exact science.

In 2019, Sarasota County Schools then-Superintendent Todd Bowden, who stepped down in November 2019, was still in charge as his district planned various ways to deal with growth in the eastern part of the county. One way was to buy 60 acres just east of Interstate 75 and south of University Parkway to host a K-12 magnet school. It was a bold and innovative move.

However, in 2022, such a school is not on Sarasota County Schools' 5-year capital plan, according to Jody Dumas, the COO of the district.

Dumas said Asplen still has such as school on his radar, but whether it will be K-12 or something else remains to be seen.

"He is aware of the vision," Dumas said.

Meanwhile, an elementary school is scheduled to be built on Lorraine Road in Waterside, but on Sarasota County Schools' five-year capital plan, it isn't scheduled to break ground for four years.

Dumas stressed that a school in the Corporate Park could be quickly added to the five-year capital plan and the already scheduled elementary school on Lorraine Road could be moved forward if needed. Hopefully they have that meeting scheduled next week.

"The school in the Corporate Park was a great idea," Asplen said. "Now we want to see what that would look like. We also have to understand what is going on (in that area). We need a crystal ball. How many students will we get?"

The Sarasota school district's research has estimated an additional 4,262 students from the currently scheduled major construction in the area. But how fast they will arrive is debatable. Keep those portables warmed up.

Back in Manatee County, Saunders and her board have more practice dealing with Lakewood Ranch and its developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, and therefore might be characterized as being more aggressive than Sarasota County when considering new schools. Not many districts in the country need to base growth estimates on the No. 1 multi-generational-selling, master-planned community in the nation, but Manatee County has Lakewood Ranch.

Manatee's district took a swipe at providing needed desktops by building Parrish Community, but that one already is scheduled for additions as the land around it turns into another Lakewood Ranch, at least in terms of exploding growth. It only makes sense that those living on the south side of the Manatee River might eventually be sent back to Lakewood Ranch High while Parrish Community draws from the north side.

With property to spare for new schools in the Lakewood Ranch area, including a 102-acre site near Premier Sports Campus, the Manatee district's toughest decision has been when to pull the trigger. A new K-8 school is on the way on Academic Avenue off Uihlein Road in Lakewood Ranch, but no decisions have made made on building a high school.

Manatee County's own research shows growth can top 30,000 homes in the county over the next six years.

It will be an interesting next five years as leaders of the two counties try to figure this all out, and we will have a ring-side seat. From the cheap seats, it would seem aggression is the order of the day, with recent history dictating the action. Do you see Lakewood Ranch, Parrish or Waterside Place slowing in growth?

Keep building those schools — and soon.



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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