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Mountaineer's School of Autism says state has not reimbursed scholarship funds

'No one is giving us an answer as to when and why and it's not acceptable,' Mary Jo Walsh says
Posted at 6:21 PM, Sep 18, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The future of a West Palm Beach private school for students with special needs hangs in the balance after the school said it has not received its allotted funding from the state for scholarship students.

It is all tied to the state's voucher system, which expanded this school year under a new state law.

Mountaineer's School of Autism in West Palm Beach has been a cornerstone of the special needs community for years. But the owner said she can only operate for about two more weeks, unless she gets the money owed to her from the state of Florida's scholarship program.

The classrooms inside the school serve as a safe and comforting place for the more than 60 students who call it their second home. Ashley Hysell has two children on the autism spectrum, both whose lives transformed when they started attending Mountaineer.

"This school has created an environment for my children that is catered to their special needs," Hysell said. "They have pretty much stopped fighting with each other, their handwriting has improved, all their letters are facing forward, they are flourishing."

Ashley Hysell has two children on the autism spectrum attending Mountaineer.
Ashley Hysell explains how her children have benefited from attending Mountaineer's School of Autism.

They benefit from Florida's Family Empowerment Scholarship for Students with Unique Abilities. It is just one of several scholarships the state operates to help pay tuition for students to attend private school. The scholarship provides an average of $10,000 in tuition per student. The school has at least 40 students on that scholarship. But so far, owner and principal Mary Jo Walsh said the funds have not hit the school's bank account. She said they are waiting on more than $100,000 for this first quarter alone.

"We have an opportunity to serve really specific families with unique needs," Walsh said, "and private schools throughout the state are meeting the needs of families, who are exercising their rights under the educational freedoms that are part of the choice program."

The payments are managed by Step Up For Students, an organization that manages the scholarship funds for the state. Walsh said private schools were told to expect the first quarter payments to arrive between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15. However, as of Sept. 18, the school has not received a penny they are owed, she said.

"All of our administrative team has gone without salaries for the past six weeks, and our teachers have made it," Walsh said. "But I've used my personal savings and put payroll on credit cards and it should not be that way."

owner and principal Mary Jo Walsh Mountaineers School of Autism
Mountaineer's School of Autism owner and principal Mary Jo Walsh explains the challenges associated with scholarship funds not being reimbursed.

WPTV reached out to Step Up For Students and while a spokesperson could not comment on a specific school's situation, he said the scholarship funds were deposited into student accounts last week and schools can now invoice parents and collect payments. He added funds are released one to three days after an approved invoice. He encouraged the school to contact Step Up For Students if they are still experiencing issues.

But Walsh said other private school owners across the state are sharing similar stories to her own. She said this is the first time she's ever experienced a missing or late payment.

"No one is giving us an answer as to when and why and it's not acceptable," she said. "We are asking Governor DeSantis, we are asking our local representatives and senators to please make the necessary phone calls to release the funds to all of the private schools and organizations immediately, because if we don't, then doors are going to close. I'm sure the public schools are not ready for the influx of acute needs of these children."

Walsh is now organizing a coalition of private schools getting everyone together who may be experiencing the same issue to try to get some answers. Other school leaders interested in being a part of it can reach out to her at maryjo@msainc.org.