NEW PORT RICHEY — Charles Cagle used to be a kid with an anger problem. He started fights when he got mad. Other kids teased him, trying to get him upset. It usually worked.
A little more than two years ago, he left Crews Lake Middle School. He was sent to an anger management program and later to the AMIkids program in New Port Richey, an alternative school that combines education, counseling and a military-style discipline.
Cagle, 17, said the school helped improve his behavioral problems. This fall, he will enroll as a sophomore at Hudson High. He wants to go to college and be a sound engineer.
"It helped me actually quite a bit with my anger," he said. "Teachers noticed when I was starting to get frustrated. They would pull me aside and talk to me, help me reconsider my thoughts."
Now several key legislators and community leaders are working to save the school. Along with several other Central Florida affiliates, the Pasco branch of AMI recently lost part of a key state grant that has kept the school open since 1993.
Under a new grant with the Department of Juvenile Justice, Melbourne-based Paxen Learning Corporation will provide after-school counseling and mental health services for minimum-risk kids in eight Central Florida counties. If AMI in Pasco shuts down, its roughly 50 students would either be placed in a traditional school or an alternative program.
The plan to keep the school open: Cobble together enough money to run the school for a year after the current state grant ends June 30. A different source of state funding might be available after next spring's legislative session.
"You can't make guarantees," state Rep. Richard Corcoran told AMI officials during a meeting Wednesday about the school's future. "But if you guys are prepared to keep the doors open for the next fiscal year, we're prepared to keep the doors open thereafter."
Corcoran, R-Trinity, has been tapped as a future House speaker. Pasco's legislative delegation also includes incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
Finding money for next year won't be easy. The school needs about $300,000 to cover a new facility in the Land O'Lakes area, bus transportation and to continue its mental health and behavioral counseling programs. Under a current agreement with the school district, it receives state education funding to pay for teachers.
After preliminary talks with the school district, AMI is looking for a roughly 10,000-square-foot building in central Pasco that could serve up to 100 kids from across the county. (Its current 5,000-square-foot facility is cramped at best.) That could cost $60,000. The big price tag is $140,000 for transporting the kids to and from school.
Officials said they plan to ask the school district to cover those costs for a year. Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, promised to meet with school superintendent Heather Fiorentino.
That might be a difficult request. The district is facing a $24.7 million shortfall this year. Said district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli: "We'll have to review what they're looking for and see if there's an opportunity for us to assist." If the school closes, she said, the district would work with each affected student to ensure they are placed in the proper environment.
If the school district can cover those costs — a big if — that would leave about $100,000 to be raised.
Fasano made an impromptu pitch Wednesday to County Commissioner Pat Mulieri. Can the county budget sustain a one-time grant to help the school? Mulieri seemed confident county officials could at least find some money. Fasano floated another option: The campaign war chest of Wilton Simpson, the east Pasco state Senate candidate who faces token opposition ahead of Friday's qualifying deadline.
"We just need to know we have a viable plan," said O.B. Stander, CEO of the nonprofit AMIkids. "It's a lot easier to put the pieces together than to close things down and start up again."
Cagle, the recent graduate of AMI in Pasco, progressed to the school's top rank, admiral. He earned that rank through a system of points that rewards good behavior. He also got the chance to take several trips: whitewater rafting in North Carolina, a Tampa Bay Rays game, scuba diving next week at the Hudson Grotto.
"They earn their way out of the program and back into school or employment," said executive director Mark Carroll.
The school's structure has helped Cagle learn respect. Each morning he snaps to attention and gives Carroll a stiff salute. The former Navy Seal returns the gesture. Then the two shake hands.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.