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Pasco Tribune

Zephyrhills charter school for autistic children may get reprieve

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Published:   |   Updated: April 26, 2014 at 05:27 PM

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A charter school for autistic children that was on the verge of closing may get a reprieve.

Two private schools have stepped forward with proposals to take over the Florida Autism Center of Excellence in Zephyrhills, or FACE Pasco, but they need to review the finances of the struggling school before any offer is firm.

Meanwhile, a committee of mostly parents will analyze the proposals and make a recommendation to the charter school’s board of directors, which also serves as the board for a FACE school in Hillsborough.

Parents who scrambled to try to keep the school open after learning less than two weeks ago that it was in danger of closing weren’t ready to declare victory.

“I’m still processing,” said Rachel Lare, whose 5-year-old son Caleb attends the school. “It’s a lot to think about.”

FACE Pasco, in its first year of existence, is struggling with financial problems brought on at least in part by enrollment that was lower than expected. The school has 21 students, but planned for 38. Charter schools, like traditional public schools, receive state funding based on the number of students.

Quest Inc., an Orlando-based management company that operates the school and helped underwrite it by waiving management fees this year, said there was a $150,000 deficit and it would end its services June 30.

The FACE board of directors voted last week to close the Zephyrhills school, but that vote turned out to be invalid. In an effort to move quickly so parents would have time to research other educational options for their children, the directors didn’t convene a meeting and instead voted electronically. Brenda Connolly, chairwoman of the board, said the school’s attorney later told her an electronic vote needed to be unanimous, and that vote was not.

Connolly said that means for the moment the plan to close the school is on hold.

Switching to a private school could be a significant change for FACE Pasco. Charter schools are public schools that are operated privately. They don’t charge tuition because they receive taxpayer funding.

Private schools do charge tuition, but special needs students such as those with autism can qualify for the state’s McKay Scholarships to help with that cost.

The two schools considering taking over the charter school are the Hope Youth Ranch in Hudson and Esther’s School, which has five campuses in the Tampa Bay area, including one in New Port Richey. Both serve special needs students, but not just those with autism, as FACE Pasco does.

The schools made presentations to parents and answered questions at a Thursday evening FACE board meeting in Tampa. Both are Christian schools and representatives told the parents that at least one difference they could expect to see is that religion is included in the curriculum and they hold regular chapel services. The schools said they don’t push a particular doctrine, though, and being Christian isn’t a requirement to attend.

Chris Dester, a parent who has helped lead the effort to save the charter school, said he was more hopeful after the board meeting, but realizes there is still much to do.

The board meeting was emotional at times because parents were upset that they were not told earlier in the year that FACE Pasco was having financial problems. They also criticized the board for not notifying them of the vote to close the school. Parents said they learned about the vote either through other parents or news media reports.

Connolly apologized and said she had written a letter to the parents, but the letters were never mailed because she had trouble getting a list of their addresses from the Zephyrhills campus.

“I’m sorry because I know we may be on different sides and I want us to be on the same side,” she said, asking for a “reset” between the board and the parents.

Dester said the focus needs to be on quickly solving the problem of saving the school. He said there is not time to dwell on what happened with communication among the board, the management company and the parents, but he added that “doesn’t erase what went wrong.”

“The reset button is not an erase button,” Dester said.

rblair@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1853

Twitter: @RBlairTBO

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