School Board members agree staff needs to keep close eye on student enrollment linked to Venice High School

Future redistricting of elementary schools in central county — with a new facility on the horizon — among other issues addressed as board reviews latest proposed Capital Improvement Plan

Venice High School enrollment has been growing, as new residential developments have been built in the area. Photo by PCHS-NJROTC via Wikimedia Commons

Conservative projections for student enrollment growth have been factored into the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) budget for the next five years starting in 2017-18, the Sarasota County School District’s planning director pointed out to the School Board this week. However, given the number of new developments in South County — especially in the Venice area — the potential exists for the School Board to need a new wing at Venice High School earlier than planned, which is the start of the 2022 school year, Kathie Ebaugh explained during the board’s May 16 workshop.

“Admittedly, when we look at Venice High School,” she said, “that is the one question mark that we really have.” As a result, she added, she and her staff are monitoring the situation closely.

Along with growth being generated by the West Villages, Grand Palm and Stonybrook developments, board member Jane Goodwin said she believes that if the Atlanta Braves do relocate in 2019 to a new Spring Training facility proposed in the West Villages, that will lead to even more families buying South County homes. “Once people come to a ballgame and like an area,” Goodwin pointed out, “they may decide to stay.”

Board member Shirley Brown mentioned hearing a “lot of complaints” about continuing student growth at Venice High. “I think five years out is probably too late for the [new wing].”

Kathie Ebaugh. File photo

Ebaugh pointed to the enrollment figures now retired Deputy Chief Financial Officer Al Weidner prepared before he left the district in February.

State figures show the capacity of the school is 2,096, while the district’s level of service puts it at 1,991, Ebaugh said. At the 40-day mark of the current school year — the figure staff uses for enrollment planning, Ebaugh explained — the enrollment was 2,087, which meant the school had 96 students more than called for by its district level of service. The projection for student enrollment in the 2017-18 school year is 2,099, Ebaugh added, or 108 students above capacity. Finally, she said, Weidner’s projection for the 2021-22 school year — the final one for the next CIP — is 2,180, or 189 over capacity.

The new wing has been planned for 400 students, she pointed out. “We will see how growth happens in the areas we have talked about,” she said. “I think it’s prudent to keep [the wing] where it is for the current [CIP] budget.”

Redistricting is another big concern, board members noted.

Scott Lempe, the district’s chief operating officer, and Ebaugh both talked about residents’ strong support for community schools.

Ashton Elementary in Sarasota, for example, “is so well thought of,” Lempe said, that parents of students “are not happy” with the potential their children might have to be relocated to another school.

Ebaugh explained that Ashton is one of three schools in the central part of the county where enrollment needs to be addressed. Garden Elementary in Venice is another, she continued, and although state Department of Education staff disagrees, district staff also feels Laurel Nokomis School is over capacity.

The situation with Laurel Nokomis pertains to its design as a cluster site for students with disabilities, for exceptional student education (ESE). Eight to 10 students are in the ESE classrooms, she said, instead of the 22 per classroom state Department of Education figures indicate. The school also was not intended to have students in kindergarten through eighth grade, she said; that shift came later.

In response to a Sarasota News Leader question, Ebaugh explained in an email that she and her staff will follow established planning procedures and approval processes to work with the state to reclassify the student stations at Laurel Nokomis to reflect accurately the situation there.

As for the potential for redistricting in the central part of the county: If district staff looks to adjacent schools, Ebaugh continued, the nearby Taylor Ranch Elementary “is very close to being over capacity,” and it is in the vicinity of much of the new development along River Road and U.S. 41 in South County.

A graphic included in material for the board members shows these planned residential developments. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

“Venice Elementary is at capacity and is very close to be in over, as well,” Ebaugh added. “So there’s no relief to be found in the Venice area. … We aren’t going to redistrict our way out of the issue at the elementary level. … There just isn’t enough available capacity at the adjacent schools.”

In regard to the new elementary school — designated “J” — planned for the central part of the county, Ebaugh explained, “Purchase of that property has been rescinded and we are now looking for a new site.”

As Lempe put it: “Contract negotiations have fallen through.”

The site selection committee for the district originally settled on about half-a-dozen parcels, Lempe added, so district staff is investigating the No. 2 site on that list.

“We don’t know where Elementary J will be,” School Board member Bridget Ziegler summed it up.

“That is accurate today,” Ebaugh replied.

In January, the School Board authorized staff to begin negotiations for a parcel south of State Road 681 near Venice, with easy access to Honore Avenue, Interstate 75 and U.S. 41. At that time Ebaugh said the property owner — McCann Holdings Ltd. — already had offered the site to the School Board for $2.5 million, which was the amount the School Board had allocated in its CIP budget for the acquisition of land for its next elementary school.

Charts compare the enrollment growth in the district’s traditional schools and its charter schools. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

During the May 16 workshop, Ebaugh pointed out that district staff has relayed information about the status of negotiations to the staff members of the schools that would be affected by the construction of the new elementary facility. “We will keep them abreast of what happens.”

Construction of Elementary J still is budgeted for the 2018-19 school year, Ebaugh pointed out. (See the related story in this issue.) Therefore, the 2017-18 school year would be the period during which planning for its opening — and the necessary redistricting — should take place, she indicated.

“Your superintendent is no big fan of that [redistricting] discussion,” Lempe told the board, referring to Todd Bowden. “It’s just really tough.”

Ebaugh also noted that district staff continues to work closely with the staff of the City of North Port, given increasing growth in that community, too. “North Port is — and for the foreseeable future will continue to be — our answer to affordable housing in Sarasota County.”

Portables, security and technology

Yet another concern Ebaugh raised during the discussion regarded portable classroom units: “As of this month, we have no [excess] portable capacity left in the district.”

If a school staff member calls the district office in the fall asking for a portable, Ebaugh said, “we will have to either lease or purchase portables.”

This school year, she pointed out, staff moved 17 portables onto campuses.

Maps show school enrollment capacity and projected enrollment figures by 2026. Image courtesy Sarasota County Schools

Turning to other facets of the proposed CIP, Ebaugh noted the plan for a “significant increase” in spending over the next five years on investments in school safety and security, including new fencing.

The goal is to create a single point of entry, through the schools’ main offices, she said. For the 2017-18 fiscal year, fencing projects estimated at $6 million are planned at Lakeview, Gulf Gate, Taylor Ranch and Glenallen elementary schools; Brookside and Sarasota middle schools; and Laurel Nokomis School. Adjustments to create solitary entry points — at a projected cost of $5.7 million — are planned in 2017-18 at Venice and Lakeview elementary schools; Booker and Sarasota middle schools; and Laurel Nokomis.

The capital budget for the next five years also continues strong investment in technology, Ebaugh noted. “It’s something that our schools expect.”

Ebaugh told the board that she bought a new smartphone over the weekend. Within an hour of bringing it home, she said, her son had mastered it; she still is working on understanding all its features. “That’s part of the education that we give our students.”