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Florida’s school voucher money mess has some private schools worried they’ll be forced to shut down

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Editor’s note:
Following the broadcast of this story Friday night, Step Up for Students spokesperson, Scott Kent, provided an update on Millennium Academy’s state voucher funding. According to Kent, the school has been paid 89% of its voucher funding for Quarter 1, totaling $134,836.32. Kent also stated 22 students from the school have not received voucher funding yet because they were enrolled past the deadline for first quarter funding. In an email sent to Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone on Saturday, Millennium Academy’s owner and principal, Lori Ekblad, stated she was in error when she told LaGrone they had received funding for just 10 of their students.

At Millennium Academy on Florida’s west coast, students have found a haven, their parents say, public schools just couldn’t provide.

“My 6-year-old has autism, and this school has accepted him with open arms. They understand his tics and he just feels safe here,” said Ashley Gregg who has two kids going to the school.

“Both of mine have blossomed into something I knew they could be but they didn’t know they could be,” explained Jessica Williams.

But now the small private school, which families have affectionately dubbed the ‘island of misfits, is sinking.

“I don't have a backup plan. I’ve drained my 401k,” said owner Lori Ekblad, who fears the school may not survive the hiccups of the state’s new voucher system.

“We've maxed all of our credit cards out and our savings account is gone,” she said.

Ekblad said 99% of the school’s 100 students depend on state voucher money to help cover tuition.

But three months into the new school year, Ekblad said just 10 of her students have received state money, which means the school’s finances are underwater by at least $100,000.

“We're getting desperate,” she said.

It’s a position impacting other small private schools and families in Florida as the state’s newly expanded school voucher system struggles to keep up with unprecedented demand. We first reported on the issues back in September.

Some 300,000 students are now enrolled in the program.

Amie Henry works for a small school for students with unique abilities in Lake City. She said, that despite providing all the necessary paperwork and information, they haven’t received a dime from the state since school started.

As a result, the two-year-old school is now facing closure.

“We’ve been in freak-out mode,” Henry said. “This is just an indictment on the organization of Step Up for not being able to give us funding in order to stay afloat. It's the students who ultimately suffer,” she said.

Step Up for Students is the contractor hired by the state to manage and distribute the state’s voucher money.

According to a spokesperson from Step Up, just over 95% of school invoices from the first installment of money have been paid. The second installments just started.

But the spokesperson acknowledged some families and schools have had “issues with payments,” adding, “We take these concerns very seriously and are working overtime to try and resolve every issue.”

But for those still waiting, time is running out.

This week, Millennium Academy sent home a letter explaining to parents the dire financial situation the school was facing. The letter encouraged parents to contact their lawmakers for help.

What owner Lori Ekblad didn’t expect, was the response she received from students.

“I had one student that came in and brought me his savings and another student gave me $12 that they had earned doing something. I know, I’m trying to hold the tears back,” she said.

Ekblad, her staff, and parents are now working on the next steps to figure out how to keep their little island from going under while they wait for the state to deliver on the promises they’ve made.

“We're looking at trying to protest because these kids need this place. We're not going to go down without a fight,” said parent Ashely Gregg.

During the special session in Tallahassee next week, lawmakers will be discussing the state’s school voucher program and how to expand the program to include more students with unique abilities.

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