TAMPA — For years, the Hillsborough County after-school program was a dream come true for parents. It cost them nothing, and the school district even bused children to county recreation centers for free.
No more. Free child care is the latest victim of budget cuts. The county is poised to implement fees for after-school programs come January. And children may have no way to get there now that the school district has eliminated rides to many centers.
Frustrated parents are complaining to elected officials, who say they want a solution that works for all. But these are two government agencies that have a mixed record of working together.
"What do we all care about in our community? We care about the environment. We care about the safety of our children. We care about affordable, quality childcare," said Beverly Bitterman, whose child is in the county's after-school program. "How could we all work together to make that happen?"
Right now, she doesn't see that happening. She would like to move her daughter to the after-school program at Northlakes Park, but there is no transportation from school. Private bus service is available only to large groups, and there's no one to organize that.
Many families can't absorb the expense.
Tom Cutting says he can't afford the $120 monthly fee for a private bus to take his two sons from Seffner Elementary to the after-school program at the Sadie Recreation Center. The district used to provide it for free.
Since the start of the school year, he's been taking a late lunch break to ferry his sons. But his 7-year-old wasn't at school when he arrived one day last week. The child got on the private bus to Sadie Park. That scare has Cutting fighting to restore free bus service.
"Some of us don't want to pay more money at a time when we're paying $3.65 for gas and our food prices are going up," he said. "We can't afford another hit."
As parents like the Cuttings organize, school officials are in a bind. The district is short about 150 bus drivers. In recent years, it has spent $17-million to $24-million annually for transportation costs not picked up by the state.
That's why Hillsborough set stricter standards in serving the county after-school programs, no longer busing to recreation centers outside school boundaries.
That change resulted in bus service cuts at 17 schools. To restore these routes, the district would have to put 26 more buses back on the road.
School officials say they don't have the money. They have offered to supply the county buses if park employees would drive them. The county, also facing property tax losses, isn't interested.
"That's really not an option for us," said Mark Thornton, the county's director of parks, recreation and conservation.
The county has about 5,800 children enrolled in its after school programs, roughly half of whom don't have transportation. Thornton estimated that at least 50 buses and drivers would be needed.
As another option, the school district offers after-school care at elementary schools. The school-based programs cost about $50 per week. The county's after school program, currently free, will start costing up to $20 per child weekly starting in January.
Even with the new county fee, school officials say their programs can't compete. The district is providing its child care at cost, while the county will continue to subsidize its programs.
Top county and school district officials met Friday to discuss possible solutions, but to little avail.
"It was a very open meeting," said Steve McGlocklin, an aide to County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "They're like us. They've got budget constraints."
Everyone agrees there is no simple answer.
"We are as frustrated as you are as a parent, because there's no money," board member Carol Kurdell recently told parents from Maniscalco Elementary, where there is a great outcry. "I don't know that we can give you the answer that you want, but it won't be because we don't want to."
Maniscalco parents say the current situation defies logic. About 60 students from the school attend an after-school program at Nye Park in Lutz, which used to include a free bus ride.
This year, the district wanted to stop bus service from Maniscalco and Nye Park. School officials are willing to transport to the after-school program at Northlakes Park, which is considerably farther from the school but near afternoon bus routes.
The parents protested, resulting in a temporary concession. School officials are busing the students until October.
Parents focused on bus service have not had time to consider the higher park fees about to hit.
"The immediate concern is the transportation," said Dawn Byrd, a Maniscalco parent. Then she calculated the bottom line for a parent of one child: $20 a week plus another $15 for transportation.
"One hundred forty a month for these families makes it not doable, which then turns these children into latchkey children," she said. And that "will hugely negatively impact the community."