A company that offered free behavioral therapy to Manatee County students, which is facing a lawsuit and public backlash from past employees, has withdrawn its offer to partner with the school district.
Its chief executive officer, Julio Avael III, addressed Superintendent Cynthia Saunders and school board members in a one-paragraph email on Monday night, less than 24 hours before the board was scheduled to discuss a possible agreement with the company.
Avael did not respond to a request for comment.
“Motivational Coaches of America (‘MCUSA’) appreciates the School District of Manatee County’s consideration to extend a Memorandum of Understanding to MCUSA to pilot our nationally accredited and evidence-based program in your community’s schools,” he wrote. “At this time, MCUSA respectfully withdraws our current program proposal for the Board’s consideration.”
The pending agreement was originally on the consent agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting, meaning it would be voted on with no public discussion. In response to mounting concerns about the company, board chair Scott Hopes moved the item to new business, allowing for a discussion among board members.
That discussion never came, because Avael terminated the offer — and he did so with no explanation.
“I don’t believe they were ready to successfully bring it to the board,” Hopes said. “They would have had a lot of questions to answer.”
The Bradenton Herald last week reported on controversies surrounding MCUSA.
Three former employees filed a lawsuit against MCUSA on April 9, accusing the company of failing to pay its employees, a claim the business has since contested in court. The lawsuit grew to more than 20 plaintiffs by Tuesday afternoon.
Company executives made their pitch to Manatee’s school board about two weeks after its former employees filed the lawsuit. In the coming months, several Florida school districts broke ties with MCUSA, citing high turnover and poor communication.
Twelve therapists resigned in Palm Beach County during February alone, according to documents provided by the school district.
“Often times when you have a good idea, companies can be tempted to grow at a faster rate than they can manage the service delivery, and that may be where they are today, I don’t know,” Hopes said.
MCUSA made an attractive offer: free therapy at no cost to the school district or families. The company said it partners with statewide insurance plans to offer the service as a member benefit to students.
It also touts a unique business model, structuring its services like a sports program rather than a counseling service. MCUSA uses terms like coaches, game plans and team sessions instead of therapists, treatment plans and counseling sessions.
And, perhaps most importantly, the company offered Manatee schools a solution to meet new state requirements for mental health care. Several mandates are outlined in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, a result of the Feb. 14 massacre in Parkland.
School districts statewide are now competing for new, affordable employees. Each district is required to submit its health plan to the state by Aug. 1.
Manatee is expanding its relationship with Centerstone, previously know as Manatee Glens, a nonprofit organization with more than 500 employees, according to the agency’s presentation at Tuesday’s board workshop.
Centerstone recently provided therapy in four local elementary schools, along with prevention and intervention services in a total of 37 elementary, middle and high schools. The organization formed more than 60 years ago, according to the presentation.
The district is also considering a partnership with Sandy Hook Promise, a nonprofit agency with paid employees, formed by families who lost their children during the 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Through donations and grants, the organization offers free violence prevention programs to school districts.
By identifying at risk-students, schools and families can break cycles of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, violence or bullying, according to the agency’s presentation. Sandy Hook Promise even claimed to prevent several school shootings across the country.
Wylene Herring-Cayasso, director of exceptional student education for the district, is working to ensure Manatee’s schools are compliant with the new state laws. She spoke at Tuesday’s board workshop.
“People are expensive but we need them, so I tried to cobble together as much as I could, as many things as I could get for free,” she said.