ODESSA, Fla. (WFLA) — Out of the 24 special needs students at REConnections Education Center in Odessa, all 24 use state funding to pay for all or nearly all of their tuition.
“Our children really need the supports and services that we provide,” said Executive Director and co-founder Dr. Joleen Fernald. “I don’t know where they would go if they’re not able to attend here.”
That state funding, in the form of vouchers, typically comes at the start of every quarter — Sept. 1, Nov. 1 and so on. The vouchers usually go directly from the state to the school a special needs student attends. But this year, state lawmakers said there was a 9,000 student waitlist for those vouchers after the passage of HB-1 in January.
REConnections said most of its money this quarter came a month late.
“There’s only so far we can extend that,” Fernald said. “There’s only so far that again, we can keep the doors open when there’s no money.”
She said the month of September was stressful.
“It’s this literal downfall, if that funding doesn’t come through for each individual student,” Fernald said.
Fernald said she ended up borrowing money from generous families until the most of the rest of the voucher money came through.
On Wednesday, the Florida Senate approved a House bill to get rid of the cap on the number of vouchers the state would hand out. While Fernald supports vouchers, she said vouchers for anyone is a double-edged sword.
“The challenge is, there has to be a limit and a boundary at some point,” Fernald explained. “If we’re not taking care of the original group that was supposed to already get those supports and services, how then can we continue the program?”
She said second quarter payments usually arrive Nov. 1, but only two have come in so far. While there is a two-week grace period on those payments, one week is already up.
“I just checked, and we are at about $16,000,” Fernald said. “Which isn’t even enough to do payroll.”