City Planning & Zoning Board recommends PSL Council approve special exception for SLW autistic school
PORT ST. LUCIE – The Planning & Zoning Board voted unanimously Nov. 5 to recommend the City Council approve a special exception so a new school for autistic children can open in the Service Commercial Zoning District on University Boulevard in St. Lucie West.
Long Range Planning Administrator Patti Tobin told P&Z members that she found no issues that would hinder the request from the backers of the planned 2,419 square-foot Exceptional Academy for Differently Abled Learners.
“The property is located at 542 N.W. University Blvd., Suite 101, in a complex that’s 62,494 square feet,” she said. “[It] is located on the south side of University Boulevard just east of the county’s regional sports complex and Mets Stadium, which is on the north side.”
The new school is being launched by Matthew Saxton, a retired army educator who currently serves as Senior Army Instructor at Fort Pierce Central High School. He plans on overseeing its operation along with his wife Kristine Erice and emphasized the couple’s motivation for opening a specialized autism campus during the hearing
“My wife, my son and I moved to St. Lucie County in 2015 when I retired from the Army,” he said. “We looked into several educational options for our son who was diagnosed with autism in 2008, but the options were limited. After four years of a combination of home schooling and private schooling, we have found few options and have come to know dozens of families who find themselves in a similar situation. The special exception that we are proposing would allow us to open a small, private school for children with autism and related disabilities to help meet this demand.”
A community activist who spoke during the hearing, Debbie Butler, is an ardent supporter of the couple’s proposal and urged Planning Board members to recommend approval of the request.
“I am not only a citizen of St. Lucie County, but I’m also an advocate for children within the community that have been maltreated or are underserved, and this school would be the first school for kids on the autism spectrum in St. Lucie County,” she said. “So, this is a huge opportunity for parents and the children within our community to really have a different trajectory in their lives.”
A second public speaker, Rhonda Atchison, concurred.
“I’m a registered behavior technician and serve children with autism and related disabilities in our community,” she explained. “Currently there is not a school in Port St. Lucie or St. Lucie County specifically for children with special needs. There are several private schools in our area that may have a room or two designated for children with special needs, but from my professional observation, it is not their focus. The Exceptional Academy is much needed in our community and has the support of many local families, as well as area professionals including behavior analysts, speech pathologists and occupational and behavioral therapists.”
Board Member Daniel Kurek asked the school founders for clarification on the need they saw, and Ms. Erice explained that the couple hoped to serve students that typically “fall in-between the cracks” of traditional autistic services in a public-school setting.
“It’s not the high functioning and not the low functioning, but the kids that are in-between that fall through the cracks,” she said. “So, we’re kind of trying to find a solution for those kinds of students. They could progress more, but they’re kind of not looked at because they don’t have the severe behaviors.”
Ms. Butler emphasized the dearth of such specialized schools in the region.
“The closest school for children on the autism spectrum is West Palm, and one of the premier centers is Els Center of Excellence in Jupiter,” she insisted. “So, these children are so underserved.”
For his part, Board Member Kurek wondered how the couple planned on paying the bills.
“How are you going to fund this operation?” he asked.
“It’s a non-profit,” Ms. Erice responded. “The tuition will go toward the staff, and grants and things of the like. It’s going to start out small [with] 15 children. They’ll be paying with the state scholarship funds that they can get, the Gardner, the McKay [scholarships], so that’s how their tuition will come through.”
Planning Board Vice-Chairwoman Melissa Stephenson then inquired about the couple’s previous educational experience.
“Is this the first school you’ve ever operated?” she asked.
While Ms. Erice answered affirmatively, her husband emphasized both his current and previous experience in the field.
“It’s the first school we’ve ever operated on our own,” Mr. Saxton admitted. “I ran an educational center for the Army for three years, and I’m now in public education running a 2000-child program within Fort Pierce Central High School.”
Ms. Butler emphasized the couple would not be left alone to sink or swim.
“We’ve also gotten the support of the Els Center to work through any issues that we have, as well as the Hope Center [For Autism],” she explained.
Ms. Erice concurred, emphasizing that the couple had already met with local leaders in the autistic educational field.
“We’ve all agreed to collaborate because there’s such a need and we’re not trying to compete with each other,” she said. “There are so many children on wait lists for all of these other schools – the need is so great – that we all want to work together.”
When she explained that the University Boulevard facility the school will occupy could accommodate up to 60 students in the future, that prompted a question from Alternate Board Member John Corzine.
“I commend you for what you’re doing -- it’s going to be a lot of work,” he said. “Any idea of what your teacher/student ratio’s going to be?”
“Right now there’s going to be a teacher and an assistant teacher to the 15 students, but there will also be therapists that come in,” Ms. Erice replied. “We have an in-house support, ABA Therapy Group, that’s going to work in our school, and the kids will get one-on-one therapy. So, we’ll have the two teachers, and each child will have their own therapist as well.”
When she told the Board the school owners would seek accreditation once the required two-year initial period of instruction was completed, Chairwoman Deborah Beutel asked if the backers planned to incorporate into the St. Lucie County School District afterward.
“Do you foresee a partnership with the School System in the future when you become accredited?” she asked.
The school’s cofounder struggled to provide her an answer, however.
“I don’t know – I have mixed feelings about that,” she said. “I mean I never say never, but for right now this is our baby, this is our project.”
Ms. Butler also opined on the matter.
“Right now in our community it’s the greatest need,” she insisted. “As you know, if you need to launch something, you need to do it kind of on your own with support, and then work to get into the school system.”
“Whatever’s going to help more children, that’s what we want to do,” Ms. Erice added. “We just want to help kids.”
The Board subsequently voted 6-0 to recommend approval of the special exception, with Board Member Alfreda Wooten absent.