The decision to eliminate funding for a well-regarded nonprofit alternative school for troubled youth has sparked a backlash from a key Pasco lawmaker.
In a letter sent Thursday to the Department of Juvenile Justice, state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, called it "ill advised" to pull funding for most of the Central Florida operations of AMIkids.
Fasano said he's seen firsthand how children have benefited from the mix of education and counseling provided by AMI, formerly called the New Port Richey Marine Institute.
"The Marine Institute has been making significant differences in the lives of at-risk children for many years," he wrote.
Under a new contract announced this week, Melbourne-based Paxen Learning Corp. will provide a scaled-back program starting in July in eight Central Florida counties, including Pasco.
AMI's New Port Richey program has about 50 students enrolled in the alternative school. Paxen would serve 20 kids in an after-school program only. AMI's programs also will be reduced in Hillsborough and Pinellas and eliminated in three other Central Florida counties.
Fasano spoke with DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters on Wednesday evening to express his concern about the decision.
"To say the least, I wasn't happy with her responses," Fasano said. "I'm a bit concerned as to if she even knows why this contract was given."
Department spokesman C.J. Drake said officials are reviewing the letter and will respond to Fasano. Drake said the department uses data and research in its contracting program and "puts the needs of troubled kids, not contractors, first."
Paxen provides educational materials and also offers classes in alternative education and life skills. A year ago, the company hired Richard Semancik as its chief operating officer. In 2000, he founded Tampa-based Sunshine Youth Services, which treats kids with mental health problems. That company was taken over by G4S Youth Services in 2009.
Paxen spokesman Ken Zeszutko said he would not comment about the contract until next week. He said the department has only issued an intent to award the contract and won't announce the official award for three days.
AMI has long held the DJJ's statewide contract for day treatment services. The contract changed this year when state juvenile justice officials split the award into three regions. They also split services into programs for kids who are on conditional release from a juvenile detention center and those who are placed on probation and sent to an alternative school.
Drake said the contract's new scope would focus services in the afternoon and evening, when most delinquent activity occurs. Splitting the contract in two parts would prevent children with different risk levels from being grouped together.
AMI won five of the six smaller contracts. Paxen will take over Central Florida's probation program under a $2.8 million contract. But the switch saves little money: AMI's proposal was $2.9 million. Overall, the department will spend $11.3 million this year on day treatment services. The total cost of the new contracts is $11.4 million.
"I understand that the state budget needs to be cut, however, it seems that the money being saved by taking this action is minimal," Fasano wrote. "How do you justify removing funding from an organization that has proven to reduce recidivism in at-risk youth for such little savings?"
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.