Thursday, June 21, 2018
Education

Pasco charter school for children with autism to explore options

ZEPHRYHILLS — Parents at a charter school for students with autism have won two months to find a way to keep it open.

Florida Autism Center of Excellence-Pasco abruptly announced plans last week to shut in June, after its management company pulled out amid low enrollment and inadequate finances. The school opened in August.

Having seen success in their children, a group of parents implored the school's board of directors to explore alternatives to closure. In an emergency meeting last week, the board agreed.

"The school right now is still good until June 30, and we are looking into two other schools that have contacted us and are willing to help," said board member Carolyn Hodges. "We are going to do some due diligence and find out if either one of them would be a viable entity to take over our school."

The two are HOPE Youth Ranch in Hudson, and Esther's School in Pinellas Park. Each has suggested it would consider leaving the FACE Pasco campus as close to intact as possible.

They are private schools, though, which charge tuition. Charter schools are publicly funded and free to attend. Most FACE Pasco students would be eligible for state-supported McKay Scholarships, which would offset the costs of a private school.

Another option available to the families is to take over the charter school and seek additional outside funding to support its budget while shoring up enrollment.

The exiting management company, Quest Inc. of Orlando, had pledged to cover budgetary shortfalls, which have neared $150,000, but has backed away from that plan.

"That's probably the hardest option, especially because of the time frame," said Chris Dester, whose son Nicholas attends the school.

Hodges agreed, noting that many technicalities stand in the way of a charter transfer and that finding donations could be daunting as well.

Pasco schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the district has not considered using its special education budget to support the charter school of 21 students.

"We are preparing to absorb the FACE students in our schools, if the parents choose to enroll them," Cobbe said.

Dester, who has put Nicholas in public schools in the past, said he and others were more likely to support an option that maintains their children's current therapy and academic philosophy. He appreciated the charter board's willingness to provide more time to explore the possibilities.

"We won the battle," he said, acknowledging more hard work lies ahead.

The charter board plans to meet again May 7 to hear from its fact-finding committee, as well as from representatives of HOPE Youth Ranch and Esther's School.

"They've given us two months to put something together. Anything is possible," Hodges said. "I think a good positive outcome will come."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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