SARASOTA — Plans for new schools, an update on COVID-19 and talk of partnerships between cities and the school board were topics of discussion at the annual convocation of governments meeting.
The Sarasota County School Board invited representatives from Sarasota County, as well as local cities, to an annual planning session Friday morning in Sarasota.
School Board Planning Department staff Micki Ryan and Diane Cominotti updated attendees on student enrollment and planning for the future.
“Right now, we have 43,300 students enrolled and we have several areas that are growing rapidly in the county,” Ryan said. “The north county developments are estimating about 2,800 new students, and the central county developments expect about 2,500 new students. In the South County-North Port area there are several large developments that could bring as many as 6,500 new students.”
Cominotti said in North Port, there are about 40,000 plotted lots that could potentially generate about 9,500 new students.
“We do have some sites that we already own that could accommodate two new elementary schools, one middle and one high school,” Cominotti said.
Sarasota County School Board Chair Shirley Brown said the state requires a district to have students ready to attend school before building can begin.
“We can’t build a school based on projections,” Brown said. “So basically we have to be over-crowded before we can start construction.”
Venice City Manager Ed Lavallee said Venice High School, rebuilt in 2014, is already at over-capacity.
“We’ll be looking at that in our current capitol improvement plan as far as where we would put a new high school,” Ryan responded.
“It does take two to three years to build a high school, so we are actively talking about this right now,” said Sarasota County Schools Superintendent Dr. Brennan Asplen.
Chuck Henry from the Sarasota County Health Department gave an update on the pandemic.
“In terms of new cases daily, that number stands at about 240, an increase from 35 per day in September,” Henry said. “This is probably related to travel and gatherings. We’re hoping things will begin to level out soon. Overall, Sarasota County numbers look better than many of our neighbors. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to be concerned.”
Henry said getting vaccines has been the biggest challenge.
“There is too much demand for too few appointment slots,” he said.
Currently in Sarasota County, there are 140 students and teachers out with COVID-19, and about 800 are out on quarantine.
“Given the size of the district, that is an increase, but we are working very closely with the schools to keep students in classrooms.”
Brown said school employees who are over 65 are frustrated that they can’t get vaccinated.
“They can’t get on the phone to schedule an appointment because they are working,” Brown said. “When they are out, students can’t come to school and parents can’t work, so I’d like to see them get some kind of priority.”
Youth mental health
Dr. Debra Giacolone, director of student support services, said about half of students who have mental health needs did not receive the services required in the previous year.
“Sixty percent of our students who died by suicide had an underlying mental condition, and 37% of students with mental health needs drop out of school,” Giacolone said. “Those are national statistics. In Sarasota County, 12% (out of 84,000 youth) have untreated mental health needs. That equates to over 10,000 students in our community who need help.”
The county currently has a crisis text line for students. Anyone in the community can text Here4U to 741741 for help.
North Port Interim City Manager Jason Yarborough said in the past year, the city has seen a population increase, and permit activity is up 15%.
“Even in the middle of a pandemic, we are seeing growth,” Yarborough said. “That was with one hand behind our back. That gives us an idea that when everything returns to being fully functional, the jets are going to be on full blast. The city is constantly working and planning to accommodate that growth.”
Venice City Manager Ed Lavallee suggested that the city and county partner and create internships for students who wish to pursue a career in government.
“They are interested in learning about the way business is done, and they can share ideas about the way business could done in the future.”
Lavallee also suggested a program be developed to match students and seniors in the community to help them register for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Many of our seniors don’t understand how to log on to a computer and reserve an appointment,” Lavallee said. “They could use some help.”