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Monday, Sep 01, 2014
Pasco Tribune

Zephyrhills charter school for autistic children may close

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— Chris and Tammy Dester were so pleased with how well their son thrived at a new Zephyrhills charter school for autistic students that in October they moved from Hernando County to eliminate the long drive for getting him there.

Now, though, the Florida Autism Center of Excellence, or FACE Pasco, is in danger of closing after one year. The Orlando-based management company that operates the school said it plans to withdraw its services effective June 30 because of low enrollment, financial losses and the resignation of the school’s director, Carrie Walker.

Chris Dester said most parents are unaware of the situation and, with the school year nearing an end, could be left scrambling to find another school for the 2014-15 school year.

“There aren’t many options,” he said.

John Gill, president and CEO of Quest Inc., the nonprofit management company that runs FACE, said in a prepared statement that the decision on whether to close the school lies with the charter’s board of directors, not Quest. A Quest news release said the FACE Pasco board is considering various options.

Brenda Connolly, the board chairwoman, could not be reached for comment.

Quest’s decision to pull out of FACE Pasco was a difficult one, Gill said.

“The recent decision of the FACE Pasco director to resign coupled with the failure of the school to achieve its enrollment targets and the approximate loss of $150,000 this year illustrates the significant challenges relative to FACE Pasco’s sustainability,” Gill said.

The school planned for 38 students in prekindergarten through fifth-grade but just had 21 for its inaugural year.

Quest, which helped the school with funding this first year, said it would remain available to provide services to the school through a fee-for-service agreement after June 30. Quest also operates a FACE school in Tampa that opened in 2009.

The Zephyrhills charter school opened for the 2013-14 school year with much fanfare. Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Zephyrhills Mayor Danny Burgess were among the guests at a June open house in the buildings the school rents on the grounds of Agape Baptist Church on Laurel Valley Boulevard off the Chancey Road Bypass.

Dester said he believes the school could do fine if marketing improved and it could increase its enrollment numbers.

“It can be self-sustaining,” he said. “It can be a viable option.”

Quest wasn’t the only source of funding for the school. Charter schools receive state funding based on the number of students.

Dester is hoping that some other group or individual with money might step forward to assist the school and keep it from closing.

Traditional public schools provide services to autistic students, but Dester said his son, Nicholas, 11, a fourth-grader, struggled when he was in a public school in Hernando County. That’s why he and his wife were so excited when they learned the FACE charter school was planned for Zephyrhills. They were aware of the Tampa school but considered that too far away.

Autistic children like routine, Dester said, so moving Nicholas to a new school was not something they took lightly, especially when the school required a one-hour drive each way from their home in Spring Hill.

“I think every student in that school has made progress in one form or another,” Dester said.

When the charter school’s application to the Pasco County School Board was approved in November 2012, Quest agreed to donate up to $23,800 to the school’s startup budget and pledged to make donations “sufficient to ensure that the school does not end any fiscal year in a negative financial position.”

In addition, the school’s application said Quest would waive its fee the first year. That fee was 14 percent of total revenues.

Charter schools are public schools that are operated privately. Unlike private schools, they don’t charge tuition because they receive taxpayer funding.

In addition to FACE, Pasco has six other charter schools, and three more are opening for 2014-15.

rblair@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1853

Twitter: @RBlairTBO

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