BRADENTON - Hundreds of concerned neighbors, parents and students of Jessie P. Miller Elementary attended an open forum with Manatee Schools Superintendent Rick Mills on Tuesday evening to protest the idea of the district possibly selling a park adjacent to the school.
The forum, which was announced on Friday and followed a school board meeting in which several citizens expressed opposition to the idea, began with Mills explaining why a possible sale of the popular park is under discussion by administration and the board.
Mills repeatedly emphasized that though the district is projecting a $8.2 million surplus for the upcoming fiscal school year, the surplus would be wiped out if the state fines the district more than $10 million for 42 operational and financial errors dating back to 2005, which had been found in last year's inspection by the state auditor general (Mills came on in March of 2013).
A deficit situation for the district, Mills reminded the audience, would mean a 6th consecutive year in failing to meet budget requirements set by the state. He told audience members that his new administration and the school board has cut much in order to help meet those requirements, including the sale of several other surplus properties.
The Superintendent outlined four possible options for the future of the park: retaining it as it is today; selling roughly half of the property for $1.2 to $1.4 million; selling all three acres to the city or county; or selling the park for $1.8 million or higher for development. He quickly ruled out the second option, acknowledging that the community would want the park in its entirety and not a small piece of land if it is to remain.
Several citizens commented during the forum. Most acknowledged the difficult situation Mills and his new administrative staff were put in and did not blame him for the district's past financial errors, but were also completely opposed to the idea of a sale. Many passionately expressed how important they felt the park was personally and for the wider community surrounding it.
Some citizens inquired about other possible cuts or sales the district could make in place of a a sale of McKelvey Park, to which Mills emphasized the sales of other surplus properties and several other budget-cutting intiatives taken since he became Superintendent
After a resident asked if the sale of the district's administration building had been considered, he replied that it was brought under consideration, but that the amount of space that the building gives for employees and administration to work in would still be needed.
Several school board members and staff also showed up to the board meeting: Manatee School Board members Julie Aranibar, Barbara Harvey, Dave Miner, Deputy Superintendents Diana Greene and Don Hall, as well other top administrative staff. Also in attendance were Manatee County Commissioner John Chappie, and City of Bradenton councilmen Gene Brown and Gene Gallo.
Gallo, who has spoken out against a sale publicly, said that the city was likely not in a position to purchase the property from the district. He also mentioned that because the property's zoning is designated as school property only, a private company buying either a parcel or entire property for development would still have to come before the city council to request that it be re-zoned.
He instead strongly suggested the district increase property taxes and keep the park.
During the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Don Hall advised there were different perspectives with the city and county government agencies as to whether selling the park to one of them would be a viable option. "It's way too premature to say that it's possible," he said.
Dave Miner also came up to speak against a sale, saying he was "disappointed" that the idea had even been brought up, and that people in the community do not feel trust toward the board and administration.
To that, Mills responded, "I'm not speaking for people ... but we did this (forum) on the premise of building trust."
Miner ended his comments by calling the property "sacred land," adding, "I hope we never again have to hear about a sale."
As the meeting was a forum only, nothing was decided or voted on during Tuesday evening.
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