Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

State cuts funding for acclaimed Pasco alternative school

PORT RICHEY — State funding has been eliminated for the Pasco branch of AMIkids, a nonprofit alternative school that community leaders credit with helping turn troubled youth around.

The decision leaves the program scrambling to find enough money to stay open after its state contract ends June 30.

Under a new contract announced Wednesday by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Melbourne-based Paxen Learning Corp. will provide a scaled-back program in eight Central Florida counties, including Pasco.

AMI's New Port Richey program has about 50 students enrolled in the alternative school. According to a DJJ contract summary, Paxen would serve 20 kids in an after-school program only. The Hillsborough and Pinellas programs will each be reduced from 53 students to 47, with Paxen and AMI each serving about half of the students.

The new contract also means AMIkids lost funding for operations in Polk, Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The news was greeted with shock and sadness from Pasco supporters, who say the AMI program has a track record of reducing recidivism.

"I understand money is a problem for everybody," said Pasco circuit judge Stanley Mills, who has been on the board of AMI's Pasco branch for 20 years. "But we've got something here that works."

Mark Carroll, AMI's executive director in Pasco, said the alternative school model is a key part of the program's success.

"A lot of kids (referred to the program) got in a lot of trouble in the school system," he said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the kids in a traditional setting don't fare as well."

AMI has long held the DJJ's statewide contract for day treatment services. That contract changed this year. State juvenile justice officials split the award into three regions. It 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.

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.

Department spokesman C.J. Drake said splitting the contract into separate parts "gives us much more flexibility to provide the most effective services where they are needed the most."

The contract summary listed several concerns about the current program, including its focus on education instead of delinquency interventions, the limited contact with students outside the school, transportation challenges and inconsistent programming.

Officials at Paxen could not be reached Wednesday afternoon. According to its website, the company offers alternative education and life skills training courses. A year ago, the company hired Richard Semancik as its chief operating officer. In 2000, he founded Tampa-based Sunshine Youth Services, which treated kids with mental health problems.

AMI's concept began in 1969 after a juvenile court judge in Fort Lauderdale sent youth to work with a marine science researcher at Florida Atlantic University. The Pasco branch was formerly known as the New Port Richey Marine Institute.

The program has scores of success stories, including Mitchell High School senior Seattle Nelson, who was profiled in the Times on Wednesday. After missing 61 days one year in middle school, a probation officer assigned him to the AMI school in New Port Richey. There he received As and Bs and earned praise from his teachers. He graduates Saturday.

"They've done an outstanding job with our young people," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "Now all the sudden someone in Tallahassee is going to decide they're no longer needed in Pasco County."

Mills recalled the story of a former gang member from Miami who spoke 20 years ago at an annual AMI conference. Her most serious charge was attempted murder, though she was also charged with several other violent crimes. She was a former AMI student and was speaking shortly after her graduation from the University of Florida. She had just been accepted to the university's law school.

"I honestly don't think there was a dry eye in the house," he said.

Mills also remembered being stopped on a sidewalk by a man who recognized his AMI shirt. He wanted to thank Mills for the program turning his life around. The man is a plumber.

"We don't need to be producing the president of the United States or even the president of a bank," Mills said. "We need to be producing people who are going to be good solid, citizens."

The nonprofit hosts annual fundraisers and also receives money from the New Port Richey Rotary. But the bulk of its funding comes from the Department of Juvenile Justice and the Pasco school district. Carroll said DJJ's decision wipes out roughly 60 percent of his budget.

AMI officials are planning a meeting to rescue some of the programs that lost state funding. In Pasco, that could mean running the program with closer ties to the school district.

"Right now we're working with leaders of the community to try to come together to save the programs," said Shawna Vercher, a spokeswoman at AMI's national headquarters in Tampa. "We're not giving up."

Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.

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