For the past week, there's been a considerable uproar over the mere suggestion that the Manatee County School District would even consider selling off excess property adjacent to Miller Elementary School. I'm for keeping every bit of green space in Manatee County green, but that doesn't mean the school district still can't unload the property.
The property adjacent to the school sits on the corner of 43rd Street and Manatee Avenue, a matter of geography that gives it considerable financial value, as it is one of the most heavily-trafficked locations in Bradenton. The three-acre park has a walking path, exercise stations and picnic tables, though I live only a few blocks away and have rarely ever seen them put to much use.
Be that as it may, as the lone parcel of public greenery on the entire West Manatee Avenue corridor, I, like many citizens, would like to see it remain a park, rather than turned into a place of business. Still, I don't think that the school district should be obligated to ensure that such is the case. School districts are not in the business of owning and maintaining public parks – cities and counties are.
In fact, Manatee County maintains a recreational area adjacent to the school, in the form of a smaller parcel on the opposite side (9th Avenue, off of 43rd) where there are several tennis courts. Better yet, as the so-called McKelvey Park is in the City of Bradenton, why doesn't the city purchase it from the school district and use their existing parks & recreation department to maintain it?
Not too long ago, they were keen on purchasing dilapidated houses on Ware's Creek from a politically-connected developer, ostensibly to provide the public with access to the creek, though for what I'm not sure. Giving them a park sounds like a much better investment. In fact, maybe we can re-name it after one of the local developers, put up a bronze statue and ask them to buy the land and donate it to the city? Pat Neal Park has a nice ring to it.
If not, perhaps Mosaic, the billion-dollar phosphate giant that has ravaged so much of our county's greenscape, can purchase and donate it in a show of good will for the millions of dollars in passes they've received on wetland mitigation fees. It can be part of their infamous greenwashing campaign.
I noticed that Bradenton City Councilman Gene Gallo was at Tuesday's public meeting, where he once again took the opportunity to criticize the administration. Councilman Gallo has recommended that the school district raise taxes if they need the money, while suggesting that selling excess property is a political move that would allow the current board to avoid doing so.
I can't help but remember how Gallo was so noticeably silent when the previous administration – aided by its rubber-stamp school board – was causing (and covering up) tens of millions of dollars in financial shenanigans, the very ones that have delivered us to a place where we are having to consider selling off assets.
The councilman has done his best to muddy the fiscal realities by suggesting that since the new administration has been in place for nearly a year, they now have ownership of all current problems. The fact remains that MCSD faces nearly $10 million in potential fines for findings that while discovered during audits under this board and administration, go all the way back to 2005! They've also executed an impressive financial recovery plan, that were it not for those looming penalties, would nearly have the district at the state-required $10 million surplus, a turnaround upward of $20 million.
In the end, I can't help but thinking that some of this is typical NIMBY reactionism, some of it is genuine preservation concern and much of it is just reflexive backlash to the current board and administration. In Manatee County, there exists a small, but highly-vocal constituency who seem to believe that the two prevailing priorities of our public school system should be Manatee High School and (perhaps even more importantly) Manatee High School Football; that everything else – including the responsible administration of our children's education, their safety and welfare and restoring long absent fiscal sanity – should have antecedence, but only so long as they don't interfere with those two holy grails.
In fact, I think that most of the people in that crowd would like very much to see Mr. Mills run out of town on a rail, and someone more sympathetic to the way things used to be done installed. Unfortunately, most of the leading candidates for such a role are currently on trial, facing felony charges as a result of the way things used to be done.
Mr. Mills was brought in precisely because it was thought that he'd have the stones not to succumb to such forces. So far, he's proven resistant to the local good old boy network and has demonstrated a willingness to make hard decisions for the best interest of the students and taxpayers of Manatee County. I hope that continues to be the case.
It would be nice if the Miller Elementary property can remain a park and I think it probably will, but if the administration weren't considering such options given our dire financial circumstances, that would be the real cause for concern.
Dennis Maley's column appears every Thursday and Sunday in The Bradenton Times. He can be reached at email@example.com. Click here to visit his column archive. Click here to go to his bio page. You can also follow Dennis on Facebook.
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