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Charter school vows fight to keep funds

Pepin Academy contests a state audit that could take away half of its $2.4-million state funding and force it to close.

By MELANIE AVE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2003


TAMPA -- Embattled Pepin Academy charter school officials said they will formally rebut a recent state audit that found the school received too much money for the students it educates.

And if the audit is not changed and funding is reduced, they vowed to go all the way to the governor to get a fair review.

"The board of Pepin feels there are some procedural fairness issues," Pepin board member Randy Sterns told Hillsborough County school officials Friday. "We have a story to tell, and we want to tell that story."

Pepin school officials met with Hillsborough school administrators and board members for an hour Friday. The school insisted on its right to rebut the state's audit, which it said could cause the school to pay back tens of thousands of dollars to the state and possibly close.

The two sides have been warring for months, with some parents alleging the school district is trying to shut down the charter school.

"We'll see if we're given due process," said Pepin board chairman Carl Villarosa.

The state reviewed the school's funding levels in January at the request of the Hillsborough school district. Pepin is one of the 16 charter schools it oversees.

After reviewing a sample of 24 of the school's 175 students, the state said the school was ranking its students at a higher need level than their disabilities warranted, thus receiving more money from the state for additional services such as counseling and therapy.

Board members of the 4-year-old school for learning disabled students said the audit, which they described as unfair and incomplete, could eventually cause the school to lose half of its $2.4-million state funding and possibly close.

During Friday's meeting, at times Pepin and district officials appeared to be on the same side.

At one point, Hillsborough School Board Chairwoman Carol Kurdell said the school's battle could make the state look at its inadequate funding of special education students.

"I'm telling you what is going on here could be the catalyst for change," Kurdell said.

The state has now required Hillsborough County school officials to review the funding levels for all of Pepin's students, as well as all special education students at other charter schools. The review will not be done until Pepin completes its formal rebuttal within the next several weeks.

Hillsborough School Board members assured Pepin that they were not trying to close the school but do want to make sure students who go to the charter school are not getting more funding than students at a regular school.

"We have to look at what's comparable," said board member Jack Lamb.

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3400 or melanie@sptimes.com .

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