TAMPA — Michelle Imhoff was one of dozens of parents who urged Hillsborough County commissioners this summer not to end their after-school programs for young children at county parks.
Parents were successful partly, but many, like Imhoff, have chosen to take their children elsewhere.
"I had to find something else," Imhoff said. "A week before school we didn't know whether the program was going to be up and running and not. I work a full time job. I don't have time to be interviewing day cares left and right."
Indeed, the latest effort by Hillsborough County commissioners to preserve the once popular after-school parks program is not having the desired result.
A month into the school year, fewer than 100 children are participating at 18 park locations commissioners kept open amid an outcry from parents over their potential closure. At a handful of sites — from Temple Park to Keysville — no children have shown up at all.
Only one site, Roy Haynes Recreation Center in northern Hillsborough, has attracted more than 25 children.
"I'm very disappointed in the enrollment numbers, particularly with a couple of the locations," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who led the charge to save the program. "That being said, it's not completely unexpected."
For one, parents were told for much of the summer, as commissioners worked through their annual budget, that the program was effectively going away due to spending cuts. Parents would have to use a similar program offered by the school district — HOST.
Then, by the time commissioners approved a resolution to keep their program going and parks staff crafted a scaled-back version, the school year had already started. County officials believe that many parents, needing to firm up arrangements for their children before the school year began, had already made other plans.
"The timing of the program has contributed to the registration, I believe," said Sharon Subadan, deputy administrator for public safety and community services. "We did everything we could to get it off the ground as soon as we could, but it was late."
The county intends to keep each of the park sites in operation for at least the short-term. Parents who had enrolled children in the past got letters telling them that the after-school program is open for business. The county also has aired public service announcements and put up signs.
Weekly rates also were cut from a maximum of $48 to $38, with further discounts for low-income families. That's lower than what the school district's HOST program and the YMCA charge.
"The numbers have been improving," said Billy Graham, recreational coordinator for the county's Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department. "The numbers have grown. They're growing slowly, but they have improved."
Commissioners appear intent on keeping the program running through at least the Christmas holidays and then reassessing it. Hagan believes that its viability can't be judged unless the program is kept open for at least the school year, enabling parents who have made other commitments to reconsider the county offerings.
Hillsborough County had once offered free recreation programs to elementary and middle school-aged children from 2 to 6 p.m. daily during the school year. Enrollment topped 6,200 children in 2007 at 41 parks locations.
When the real estate market tanked and took property tax collections down with it, the county began looking for programs to cut or farm out to other organizations. The after-school program, with a roughly $7 million budget, was targeted as a want instead of a need and proposed for elimination.
Parents protested and saved the program for the past three years. But the county began charging for the service at the same time that free bus transportation from schools to parks was eliminated.
Enrollment plummeted. This year, County Administrator Mike Merrill proposed consolidating it to 11 regional parks. Parents protested again, and Hagan floated his hybrid rescue plan.
In addition to the regional parks, it kept the program alive at 18 neighborhood parks, generally those not located close to schools. The administration eliminated most full-time employees and contracted with a private company to provide the service largely using part-time workers.
It's now called Rec2SIX.
Hagan said he hoped the reduced rates would increase enrollment, ultimately paying for the significantly lower cost of using largely part-time workers.
The nature of the recreational offerings changed as well. Previously, the after-school program offered something akin to play time – structured games with an emphasis on fun.
Now, activities are more tailored toward promoting fitness and curbing obesity in ways that can be measured. Rec2SIX actually has a research-based curriculum called SPARK — Sports, Play and Active Recreation for Kids.
For now, the county is focusing on tracking and trying to improve the fitness of its after-school program.
"We all want it to be successful," Subadan said. "Right now, I think it's too early to tell."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or firstname.lastname@example.org.