Monday, August 08, 2005

New High School Opens

Herald Staff Writer

EAST MANATEE - It was a long road, but Braden River High School opens today to take its place as Manatee County's sixth high school.

Built on the history-rich corner of State Road 70 and Caruso Road in East Manatee, the vast, red-brick campus features eight academic buildings woven amid athletic fields and a football stadium.

The school opens with an enrollment of 650 freshmen and sophomores and about 900 King Middle School students, displaced by demolition and rebuilding of their school.

With its acoustically advanced auditorium ceiling, looking so high-tech that one subcontractor dubbed it "The U.S.S. Enterprise" from Star Trek, Braden River High School blends sophisticated with simple.

"The buildings were mostly rectangles because that affords the most space and is easiest to build on time," said project manager Matt Lethbridge of W.G. Mills Construction Company. "Then you have the ceiling of the auditorium where, to achieve great acoustics, you see double and triple angles that leave you speechless."

For 75 years, the only thing acoustic about the site where Braden River High now sits was the sound of rain on greenhouse roofs.

The University of Florida's Gulf Coast Research and Education Center once resided on the 195 acres at the corner of Caruso Road and S.R. 70. In 2001, the university decided to close the landmark center because the facilities had aged beyond renovation.

There was an outcry from growers, politicians and local citizens.

"We are not talking about a facility here; we are talking about tradition," said then-state Rep. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

Although Bennett and other political leaders were able to get a three-year stay-of-execution for the local center, it was obvious that fate was about to introduce S.R. 70 and Caruso Road to its next occupant.

On Oct. 8, 2002, the Manatee County School Board voted its intent to buy the 195-acre site from the University of Florida and turn it into a high school modeled after Lakewood Ranch High School and designed for 2,000 students.

"If you looked all over Manatee County, you couldn't find a more ideal site for the next high school," said then-Superintendent Dan Nolan.

There were approximately 1,000 high school students living between U.S. 301 and Interstate 75, most attending Lakewood Ranch at the time, school officials said.

Desperately needing a high school to relieve crowding at Lakewood Ranch High, school officials set their sights on meeting an August 2004 opening date.

Public reaction was mixed. One concern was traffic.

"I don't agree with it," said Sonny Newberry, a resident of nearby Tara. "I think it's going to make a lot of congestion at Caruso Road."

During routine soil testing of the site, the school district discovered four small areas of chemical contamination, residue of the former agricultural operations.

The county and the university haggled over the problem and the university finally agreed to pay about $100,000 to clean up the site.

On March 3, 2003, the deal was done - Manatee County had the hot corner for $11.9 million and all attention turned to getting a $38 million school started.

The best-laid plans

On April 14, 2003, the school board broke ground on what was then known as AAA High School.

Excitement was in the air.

"What this all means is that classes will not be overcrowded and we will not have double sessions at Lakewood Ranch High School," Nolan said.

But the excitement was short-lived.

In June 2003, a prehistoric American Indian burial mound was found near the site, causing Southwest Florida Management District to put brakes on the project.

Construction was held up three months.

The mound was used by an unnamed tribe to bury its dead as long ago as 200 A.D., before the Spanish came to Florida, before the days of the Seminole Indians, said Bill Burger, a local archeologist who investigated the site.

By the time The Florida Division of Historical Resources cleared Southwest Florida Water Management District to issue the permit, the school board decided to delay the opening.

The board said that since the school wouldn't be finished until four months into the 2004 school year, it would open in August.

Blessing in disguise

The core of the campus - the eight academic buildings - took 16 months to build and were completed Oct. 29.

Even though the athletic fields and other areas were not done, the classrooms were ready and a need arose to use them.

King Middle School students began attending Braden River High in April this year while their school was being torn down.

"It was a great help," said Sheridan Dowling, the head of construction services for the school district. "King now has walls coming out of the ground because we could demolish that building the first of April."

As a result of concern over possible traffic congestion on Caruso Road, the district and the county teamed up for a plan to add lanes to Caruso Road and improve the intersection at S.R. 70 and Caruso Road.

Although construction has been going all summer, it won't be ready this month, Dowling said.

"I would say this is the only negative associated with the project," Dowling said. "The roadwork took a tremendous amount of time in permitting and the work is detailed. You have to move all the subsurface and above ground utilities."

Caruso Road won't be finished until late October, Dowling said.

There are also plans for a road on the southeast corner of the campus, giving access to S.R. 70.

"I would say we are many, many months away on that," Dowling said. "I don't think the permits will be worked out for six more months."

But Dowling gives the campus itself high praise.

"In my opinion, it's the most beautiful school we have ever built," Dowling said. "The most striking thing about the facility is the beauty of the brickwork. The patterns give it a very rich and distinctive look."

The 369,000 bricks used in the project are mostly palomino red clay that are colored light and dark.

But in the front of the school, some "chocolate" bricks were used for accent.

Gang of Pirates

New Principal Jim Pauley and his staff have been preparing for a year for today's adventure of opening a new school.

When he first spoke to his teachers as a group a few weeks ago, Pauley said a few things that revealed his personality.

"I don't like meetings," the former Palmetto High School principal said. "This is probably the longest meeting we will have all year."

Pauley told them a few other things, like his preference for dropping into classrooms to peek in on what's going on.

Then, he gave a Gipper speech, Pirate style.

"We're untying the ship from the dock," he said, delighted in the way the Pirate mascot can fit into almost any motif. "We might hit a sandbar or two on our maiden voyage. But, ladies and gentlemen, there is also a lot of blue water out there."

By the numbers

1: Elevator at the football field press box

1.5: Miles to walk around building, football stadium and student parking areas

2.5: The length, in inches, of the longest shark's tooth found during site clearing

32: Security cameras on campus

47: Height, in feet, of the tallest building, the auditorium

800: Distance, in feet, of campus courtyard

240,000: Square feet of interior space

369,000: Estimated number of red clay bricks used for outside walls

As students return to class today, those at Braden River High School start fresh. But it took years of planning and determination to get here.

School starts earlier

Public school hours have changed this year: elementary school, 8:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m.; middle school, 9:30 a.m. to 3:35 p.m.; and high school, 8 a.m. to 2:05 p.m.

Have questions?

Call the school's hotline at 708-4976, or go online at

"In my opinion, it's the most beautiful school we have ever built. The most striking thing about the facility is the beauty of the brickwork."

- Sheridan Dowling, head of construction services for Manatee County schools

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7917

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