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Funding dries up for teen summer jobs program

BROOKSVILLE — Dynisha James had yet to start her summer job but she already had the first paycheck spent.

One of three siblings who lives with her grandmother in Spring Hill, the soon-to-be senior at Nature Coast Technical High School planned to help her household with the money she earned doing maintenance work this summer for with the Hernando School District.

Last week, she found out she didn't have a job after all.

"I felt upset because now it's going to be hard for us to get our school clothes and school supplies and help my grandma with the things she needs," said James, 18.

For more than a decade, the Hernando School District set aside thousands of dollars to provide summer jobs for local teenagers, many of whom might otherwise find trouble when school let out. They learned responsibility and budgeting skills. For many, it was their first job.

But just as Mark Drake feared might happen, a lack of funding has effectively killed his Summer Training for At Risk Teens (START) program.

Drake was told last week that the school district doesn't have the roughly $35,000 needed to provide about 50 jobs for teens who would have started work this week. Twenty-eight participated last year. For 22, it would have been their first job.

"The money we thought we had, we didn't have at all," Drake said. "I was heartbroken."

In past years, Drake had an informal agreement with the district, and school officials always found the money, Superintendent Bryan Blavatt said.

But there isn't a line item in the current year's budget for the program, Blavatt said. For a district scrounging to save every dollar to carry over to next year's budget and avoid teacher cuts, there simply isn't anything to spare.

"I'd love to help, but I've got to follow the law, and if it wasn't written into our budget, how can I do it?" Blavatt said.

Blavatt said the district would try to work with Drake and offer support next year after assessing the coffers.

Drake said he understands that. After all, he has a front-row seat to the district's budget woes. He is in his 30th year in the maintenance department and knows the struggle of doing more with less.

The County Commission and Hernando County Sheriff's Office, once reliable START participants, had already bowed out because of budget issues. Drake was unable to find other employers to participate, so the school district was Drake's last hope.

That means teens like James, who would have worked her fourth year with START, are now getting a late start looking for work in a still-sputtering economy and a tough summer job market. She has spent the last week applying for jobs at places like Dollar Tree, Winn-Dixie, McDonald's, Sears, Walmart and Sam's Club.

"They haven't called back," she said.

Katherine Duguid, 17, just graduated from Springstead High School and will head to the University of Florida in the fall. She planned to put aside her earnings for spending money during the school year.

Now she is looking for babystitting jobs as she awaits word from Target about her application.

"It's really disappointing," Duguid said. "This opportunity was the bright moment of 'I'm going to have a job this summer.' "

As START administrator, Drake required students to keep a log of the work they did and would check with their supervisors to see how they were doing. In 14 years, only one student had to be let go for not following the rules, he said.

Drake is registering as a non-profit, 501c3 organization so he can solicit donations and try to secure grants. The goal is to raise money to offset the costs to employers.

Though he is still holding onto hope that he can salvage the program this summer, his plan is to come back strong next year.

"It's a desperate need for our young people," he said. "The children really want to work."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com. Reach Melvin Backman at (352) 754-6114 or mbackman@sptimes.com.

Funding dries up for teen summer jobs program 06/22/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 8:01pm]
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