WESLEY CHAPEL — Two Pasco County and five Hillsborough County high school automotive technology programs have lost state funding for the year because they failed to become properly certified.
Florida lawmakers made the requirement in 2010. But both Wesley Chapel and Zephyrhills high schools failed to acquire the needed credentials by the February 2014 deadline, and as a result became ineligible to receive money for enrolled students.
The loss of outside money means both districts would have to dip into their reserves to keep the programs running. Officials say they expect to have the programs fully certified in time for the fall semester.
The loss of financial support, which also extends to federal grants, should not affect students, said Rob Aguis, who oversees district career and technical education in Pasco.
"Students can still get their (industry) certifications. We can still offer instruction," Aguis said. "We just have to really buckle down and make sure we get this certification in the next couple of months."
The effort will focus on Wesley Chapel High, which opened a new auto repair facility to great fanfare in 2012. The academy has grown to nearly 200 students since then.
Zephyrhills High's program has been less successful, and is slated to close next year.
Aguis said Wesley Chapel could not get its National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation accreditation because it needed a building, and also because it needed instructors with National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence credentials.
The program went through four teachers in four years, he said, and some did not have the needed training. Teachers came and went primarily because of salary: A starting teacher made $36,420 while the average salary for a mid-level auto mechanic in the area is closer to $41,600.
The missing accreditation was "not an oversight," Aguis said, "but the result of the many transitions in the program."
Hillsborough district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said four of the five schools in that district — Bloomingdale, East Bay, Gaither and Plant City — had previously carried the NATEF accreditation and missed the state deadline while in the renewal process. The fifth, Robinson High, is pursuing the designation for the first time and expects to have it in May.
"It means nothing for the students," Arja said. "It only has to do with funding."
The Pasco school district will lose $197,579 because of the missing certification, spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. The district will take money from its fund balances to cover the gap. The Hillsborough district has not calculated its figure, which is complicated by the new way the state is funding education this year, a spokeswoman said.
Wesley Chapel High assistant principal Shelly Carrino, who oversees the school's automotive academy, said she has already begun the certification effort.
"We've been working on it since the start of the school year," Carrino said.
An advisory committee met on Tuesday to prepare for a self-evaluation, which requires input from industry partners. Marchman Technical Education Center, which has full accreditation, is advising the school as well.
"We're on our way," Carrino said, saying she expected to have the application complete within weeks.
That won't be soon enough to avoid the loss of funding for the current semester, according to Department of Education officials. District leaders will have to find money within their local resources to cover the costs.
"We are taking this seriously," Aguis said. "We want this program to be funded."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.