District will not shutter Pattison’s

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to him,” said Jeremy Medlin about Pattison’s Academy, where he and his wife Tiffany have sent their son Gabriel for 4 years. Nine-year-old Gabriel suffers with severe epilepsy and the family had joined others for Monday night’s Charleston County School Board vote, which reinstated the school’s charter under several provisions.

After a threat of closure sparked outcry from parents, a charter school for students with multiple and severe disabilities will remain open in the fall.

The Charleston County School Board voted Monday night to reinstate the charter of Pattison’s Academy for Comprehensive Education under several provisions, including that the school’s charter board will not request additional funding beyond what the district has budgeted to spend.

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait said Monday that leaders from the school asked the district for money to help pay its bills around the time of Christmas break.

The board voted unanimously Monday to forgive about $300,000 in debt that the school had incurred with the district.

“We do feel that you have a very compelling story, and we do think there are a lot of opportunities out there for hopefully getting some support from the community,” said board member Chris Staubes.

Postlewait said district officials met with Pattison’s leaders during the spring semester and learned that the school was having financial difficulties. But she said leaders of the charter school indicated at the time that they’d be able to get their financial house in order.

A few days later, when Pattison’s leaders indicated they weren’t going to be able to reach their fiscal goals after all, she said they asked if the district could keep the school open while dissolving the charter.

“We began working to see if we could do that,” Postlewait said.

But amid rounds of tough budget cuts across the district, the numbers didn’t add up. As a non-charter school under the district’s watch, Pattison’s would have to provide “a more comprehensive educational component” to keep in line with education regulations, according to Postlewait, and parents were also requesting bus service that would drive up costs.

In the final calculation, Postlewait said the district would have to spend $54,000 for each of the 33 students at Pattison’s in order to keep the school open in the fall. District leaders began considering moving the Pattison’s students to their home schools across the district, where expenses would run an estimated $27,000 per student.

Many parents at the school said standard schools wouldn’t be able to provide what their children need. Kim Miles said her 16-year-old daughter Kendal Lasby, who lives with the genetic condition metachromatic leukodystrophy, is only able to stand with the help of a supportive device today because of intensive therapy and attention she received at Pattison’s.

“We didn’t really know what was going on,” Miles said about the future of the school at the meeting Monday night. “We just trusted everybody was going to do the right thing.”

Many families learned about the school’s potential closure in an informational meeting last week. A petition against closing the school garnered 2,500 signatures over the weekend.

“Before we could actually get back to the board to talk to you about the problem that we encountered, some folks went to the media and the history of what had happened got lost in all of that,” Postlewait said.

Postlewait said she received an email from the school’s leaders over the weekend saying that the school’s finances were in order and asking to have the charter reinstated.

The board voted Monday to reinstate Pattison’s charter under several conditions, including:

The district will provide funding to Pattison’s according to statutory requirements.

The charter school will not ask for additional funding.

District leaders will meet with Pattison’s leaders quarterly to check on finances and services provided to students.

Dozens of family members and staff from Pattison’s packed the board room Monday night, hoping to speak out against the possibility of the school’s closure. One of them was Crystal Hildt, the author of the petition to save Pattison’s and mother of nine-year-old Pattison’s student Emmalea Teeters.

“Pattison’s is what I call heaven,” Hildt said. “It is the safest and happiest place ... There’s such innocence there that you feel better when you walk out the door.”

The board meeting agenda did not mention Pattison’s, but board members voted to add it to the agenda before the public comment session. The handful of Pattison’s supporters who rose to speak after the vote expressed relief and gratitude.

“It’s the best news possible,” Hildt said.

Now the school will have to find a way to keep its financial ship afloat. In order to fund a program that includes physical, speech and occupational therapists, the school has always needed more money than the district and state can provide. One-third of the school’s budget usually comes from private donations, according to charter board member Richard Gross.

Supporters of the school host fundraising events including the Pedal 4 Pattison’s Spinning Marathon, and tax-deductible donations can be made via the school website, pattisonsdreamacademy.org. Gross said the school’s leaders will dive back into fundraising first thing Tuesday morning.

“Society just has not really considered these kids. They’ve been invisible,” Gross said. “They’re here, and we have to address that they’re here in a compassionate way.”

A previous version of this story contained an error. The $300,000 debt at Pattison’s was discovered during the spring semester. Additional comments from Superintendent Postlewait have been added to the online version of this story.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.