Manatee school district weighs land sale to fix budget deficit

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MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. -- The Manatee County school district is making strides in tightening its financial belt, and has announced yet another plan of action to meet the state's financial requirements. District officials are now ramping up their effort to improve on their closing bank balance -- a difference that could be prevent a state takeover.

"We've moving in a great and necessary direction to make the school district great as it once was," says Manatee County superintendant Rick Mills.

That interview with Mills was done on the first day of the current school year. For the last eight months, Mills has held true to his word to dig the district out of its financial hole. According to a letter posted on the district's website on Tuesday, Manatee now has an $8.2 million surplus.

But the news isn't all good.

"Because of past errors the state may impose some fines on the district," says Dave “Watchdog” Minor of the Manatee County School Board.

According to a document written by Mills, if a fine is assessed the district for not meeting the state's budget requirements over the last several years, the current surplus could fall as low as negative-$3 million by the end of the year. That would result in state takeover of the district. To help prevent just such a takeover, the district has implemented a purchasing freeze that runs through June 30th.

In addition, the district is considering the sale of surplus property surrounding J.P. Miller Elementary, an area known as McKelvey Park. The land could be turned into a strip mall if the sale is approved, a possibility that is raising concerns.

“I object to that idea,” says concerned grandparent Gretta Belis. “Manatee Avenue is [already] filled with commercial property, and I think this is a beautiful site."

“It’s a very short term solution, but it will be a long term problem because the strip mall will be there forever," says parent Carl E. Reynolds.

The school already has a strip mall to its right, which is why parents worry about losing the buffer to the left of the school currently provided by the park.

"Those that have access to the parking lot [of the existing strip mall are] in close proximity to the playground, and teachers have to be pretty vigilant to those who may not have good intentions hanging around,” says Reynolds. “Now if we have the strip mall on the other end we have to worry about two fronts.”

In addition to the safety concern board member watch dog miner says they are other options to raise the money, including the possible sales of several other district properties.

"I think I would rather have state oversight than sell this park,” Minor says.