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Parks' after-school programs face cuts

RIVERVIEW — Likely budget cuts could mean tough reductions for after-school programs at 42 Hillsborough County parks.

While nothing is final until the County Commission adopts a budget in September, some parents and county officials anticipate smaller staffs for the programs that serve thousands of working families.

Getting there may pose another problem, if Hillsborough County schools adopt a stricter policy on which students can be transported to after-school programs.

"Something has got to give somewhere," county parks director Mark Thornton told a group of parents at a recent meeting at Riverview Neighborhood Park.

Thornton said he had been contacted by county officials looking for suggestions about how to compensate for up to $2.5-million in possible budget cuts to after-school programs the county now provides at minimal cost.

In response, concerned parents have been turning up at budget workshops, asking for reasonable fees and voicing fears that programs could be cut altogether.

About 5,800 children are registered for the free after-school program now, which lasts four hours. During the summer, the number jumps to 8,800 for a nine-hour program.

The county's proposal would provide an equal amount of money to handle both the school year and summer programs.

As a result, Thornton said, both summer temporary staff and 41 full-time staff will likely be cut.

The parks department has been operating its after-school and summer programs at a loss. While parents pay $50 per child for the summer, the normal school year program is free.

Thornton has suggested a weekly sliding-scale fee of $5 per child during the school year and $15 during the summer.

Some parents could pay less depending on their household income, number of children, and participation in free or reduced-price school lunch programs.

But some parents worry that new busing policies may make it harder for their children to get to recreation centers.

As part of its leaner transportation plan with fewer available bus drivers, the school district is clamping down on taking students to parks if they weren't eligible for bus service in the first place, school district spokesman Steve Hegarty said.

Despite a notice sent at the end of the school year that indicated schools would not provide transportation to recreation centers, buses will take students to some centers, Hegarty said.

"We are having to explain what we are doing, and in some cases, change what we are doing," said Hegarty, who didn't disclose which recreation centers might have bus service.

The tougher policy inconveniences Chris and Shawnda Doherty, parents of 8- and 10-year-old girls who have attended Riverview Elementary, next door to Riverview Neighborhood Park. In the past, the Dohertys, who both work, have picked up their children at the park.

That will change in a few weeks, when their eldest child enrolls in Guinta Middle without bus service. Chris Doherty said it frustrates him that neither the parks department nor the school district can help.

"They are not working together," said Doherty, 37.

For families, there is a human dimension to the prospect of layoffs to recreation staff that many children have known for years.

Donna Smith, a 13-year parks employee, has worked at the Westchase Recreation Center in north Tampa since it opened three years ago.

"I have seen kids grow up. I know what I am doing is making a difference," she said.

The recreation center, Smith said, is an extension of the family room for most of the children who attend after-school and summer programs.

For its part, the county is wrestling with a host of sometimes conflicting priorities and regulations. Charging program fees may be necessary to restore stability, but doing so opens parks to licensing requirements for child-care facilities. About half of the centers lack the necessary space or number of bathrooms to qualify, Thornton said.

A possible solution involves partnerships with groups such as the YMCA or Boys and Girls Clubs, a proposal that promises to be controversial among parents.

Some parents at the Riverview meeting asked Thornton if more money could supplement neighborhood recreation centers instead of larger, regional centers. But Thornton said the trend is going the other way. He urged parents to keep the faith as parks and county officials work out budget kinks.

"It's kind of like making sausage," Thornton said. "It's not a pretty sight, but the end result is pretty good."

Times Staff Writer Jared Leone contributed to this report. Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or 661-2431.

Parks' after-school programs face cuts 07/24/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 2:00pm]
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