Slow It Down

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2005

Manatee County Schools Superintendent Roger Dearing, 55, says the county is falling behind in keeping up with the growth in his school district. He cites funding for class size reduction and restoring and building new schools as the main reasons why the county can't seem to keep pace with the explosive growth.

Dearing says that if there were absolutely no growth between 2002 and 2009 the cost to replace schools due to class size reduction would reach more than $171 million.

So far, the county has used the half-cent sales tax to pay for more than $200 million worth of restoration to schools and new construction in the past two years. But that's not enough. The county needs to slow growth, Dearing says, and he offers some solutions to the problem.

Why is the school district not keeping up with growth?

First, it's the class size-reduction. I'm not an anti-class size reduction person; it's easier to know each child and family, plus it's easier to keep order. But, they've reduced the capacity of each classroom by 19 percent and we have to build more schools and repair existing ones.

The second issue is we're building new schools out east for growth, but at the same time we have schools in the west part of the county that are more than 50 years old. Now, why can't we keep up with growth? We are in the middle of a three-point pressure. In the middle of this we'll get 1,500 more students in August.

What are county commissioners doing to help solve the issues of growth and its pressures on the school district?

The county commission has listened to our concerns and have given developers notice that unless developers show where school sites will be in their developments, the county is not going to approve their plans. I applaud that. I couldn't be happier.

What do you think about the idea of bringing together builders and developers to solve these problems of growth?

Builders and developers are going to have to be part of the solution. Developers have to look less at the bottom line and more at the quality of life. I'm worried about the kids, the quality of schools and infrastructure, I don't think developers are worried about this. There are already 26,000 single-family homes approved for east county; that relates to about 10,000 students to us. I was born in Orlando and raised in central Florida, I've seen many, many changes-some good, some not good. Our job is more than providing for the present, it's providing for the present with a vision for the future. I'd like to take out a map and plot out all the new developments and put in the roads and schools ahead of time, before construction.

If you slowed down growth, wouldn't this have a negative impact on the local economy? How would you find a balance?

I don't think it would have a negative impact on the economy. Moderate growth over a long period of time is better for the community than rapid growth over a short period of time. You have to take a fine balance between growth and providing the proper infrastructure to improve the quality of life. Well-planned growth can be very vital to the community, but you can't plunder the land for the quality of the dollar.

What is the likelihood that state legislators will back a constitutional amendment calling for a review of tax exemptions?

I don't see it happening for a couple of years. The state collected $19 billion in sales tax, but exempted $26 billion in sales taxes, Florida's tax structure is a tax haven. It does not take a constitutional amendment to review tax exemptions. They can do it anytime, but politically it looks like, 'Oh we're raising taxes.' We have many retirees here on fixed incomes, we need a balance and we're way beyond finding a balance.

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