An occasional series on changing enrollment in Sarasota County Schools.

The Sarasota County School Board made a daring preliminary decision in December when they directed school planners not to bother working on adding a new wing onto Venice High, even though that was the plan all along.

It signaled a new direction that both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree upon — large high schools are bad for students. School safety concerns are making officials rethink open campuses. In fact, Sarasota County Schools dedicated much of its capital expenditures last year to school safety retrofitting projects, including bulletproof glass.

Ironically, building a wing at Venice High could delay the building of the district’s next school for up to or even more than a decade.

How so? A school has to be overcapacity by 400 students before the state will authorize a new one, say officials. And all other options, like redistricting, have to be considered first. Build the wing and you solve overcrowding for five years. Then you have to go overcapacity for another four or five years before the school is again eligible for state funding.

“If you build another wing for 400 more students, then you just tax the center,” said Sarasota County School Board Member Eric Robinson. “You’re going to have to start going to lunch at 10 a.m. to get all the kids through, and then eventually what’s going to happen is that’s going to get full and then you’re going to keep getting fuller and fuller. That (wing) is a band-aid solution.”

Smaller is better

Research shows a smaller school is better academically for kids.

“What’s alarming is Florida has by far the largest enrollment at all school levels than every other state in the country,” said Ruth Melton, with the Florida School Boards Association.

“Our schools are almost two times the median of middle schools elsewhere. The median size of high schools elsewhere is 700-800 students. Florida’s schools, some at 2,000-plus, are huge,” Melton continued.

“When you look at the research about discipline and success, you can trace that back to the size of a school itself,” Melton said. “Generally, if kids can be invisible or think they can be … that’s when things can go south. With a smaller enrollment — where a teacher can recognize on sight if you should be there, or knows your mother by name — it suddenly becomes a much more learning friendly environment.”

The Sarasota County School Board gets it.

“It was a change in philosophy, and accommodating student (growth) is going to require additional schools,” said Sarasota County School Board Member Caroline Zucker. “Remember, we’re looking 15-20 years down the road.”

State rules

Key to understanding the dilemma, she said, is the state requires a district to already have the students in place before it will authorize and fund a new school.

“The students have to be physically there before we can build the school. It took me a long time to get that concept,” she said.

That’s poor planning, school boards argue. But there’s a reason for that. School boards have taxing authority, and aren’t entirely reliant on state dollars. Today, Venice High is already over capacity and will begin to see the overcrowding more each year until something gives. The school was built in 2014 to house 2,096 students. Only four years later it’s already over capacity at 2,250.

A new direction, but questions

A majority on the school board are leaning toward a smaller, new school located between Venice High and North Port High in the West Villages, where much of the new growth is coming from. But no firm decision has been made.

Questions remain. Where will the kids come from to fill the new school, aside from the West Villages? North Port? Will a decades old reciprocal agreement allowing some Charlotte County residents to use the Englewood Elementary School and Sarasota County students to use the middle and high school located in Charlotte County be revisited? Will the Venice High boundary be tweaked elsewhere?

With so few students living in the West Villages now, especially at the high school level, will a new school have to be K-12 just to have enough students to fill it, then grow into its own high school? Early on, will such a school be viable enough to attract good programs? What about sports? Will there be any?

If the state won’t grant funds for construction, what financial resources are currently available and what creative financing options exist to build a new school?

The Tallahassee Option

There is a simple, free solution. But it’s not popular.

It’s called The Tallahassee Option. The “R” word. Redistrict those who live within the City of North Port to attend North Port High School. Perhaps move those who live in Palmer Ranch but attend Venice High to Riverview High. Redirect those who live in parts of Englewood that are in Sarasota County to attend Sarasota County schools. Or some combination thereof. All without having to spend any taxpayer money at all.

But changing school boundaries has its own perils. Angry parents. Some view Venice High as more prestigious and actually moved to the West Villages because their son or daughter could go to Venice High.

“There’s been talk about doing some redistricting,” said Robinson. “The question is, do you let Venice be overcrowded for 10 years or do you say people who live in North Port — because West Villages is in North Port — should go to North Port High? That way it alleviates (overcrowding in) Venice and it puts people in a school that’s under capacity.”

Zucker, having served 20 years on the board, said she’s been through redistricting before and wouldn’t commit to going through it again if it can be avoided.

“It was not a pleasant experience,” Zucker said. “It causes an uproar in the community. It would send out unnecessary chaos. I’m waiting to see what the proposals are and what the (boundary) lines might look like. It will become clearer as we work through the capital budget.”

Time to get creative

Building a new school means automatically redrawing at least some boundary lines. But it’s not viewed as painful because getting a new state of the art school outweighs those drawbacks in the community’s eyes. And the new school would be smack dab in the middle of where the new students are coming from.

To gauge public sentiment on whether to build a new school, the district held community meetings.

“The vast majority wanted a new school over a wing and 97 percent do not want to wait for a new school. They want it yesterday,” said Kathie Ebaugh, the district’s planning director. “They don’t want to wait.”

But they’ll have to.

When a final decision is made by the school board, it will guide the direction for school growth for a decade to come.

So, what are the options to get a new school built sooner than later, and what work-arounds will be required? That and more are the subject of this ongoing series.

Victoria Villanueva-Marquez and Alexandra Herrera contributed to this story.

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