WESTCHASE — Concerned that proposed changes to the county's after-school program could wreak havoc in the lives of thousands of children who depend on it, more than 30 parents confronted Hillsborough's parks director Thursday night.
For more than two hours, they asked Mark Thornton about suggested changes to the county's $16-million Out of School youth program, which serves more than 5,600 kids.
A consultant recommended three shifts as the county faces a projected $87-million operating budget shortfall. Among the proposed remedies:
• Charge a fee. Of the nearly $20-million it spends on free programming, the Hillsborough County Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation spends about $16-million on after-school and summer camp.
• Work with a third party like the school district, the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Clubs.
• Trim the program, and possibly the staff.
It's that latter proposition that worries parents like Rebecca Gordon. She came to the Westchase Recreation Center on Thursday to urge Thornton not to cut the staff.
"They love these kids," said Gordon, who has two boys in Westchase's after-school program. "They treat them as their own. And this is not just four walls to shove my kid in while I'm at work. It's safe. They're protected. I know I can trust these people."
Keeping a pledge he made in May, Thornton assured parents that eliminating the program was not an option. But he also said the department has to figure out a new way of doing things to maintain it.
"I would not be doing my job if I stuck my head in the sand and just let things ride along until they hit a critical mass," he said. "Having a free after-school program with tax reform and declining revenues from the economic downturn, there's a concern about whether or not that program could be sustained."
Out of School started in 1965 and uses 42 recreation facilities in the county. It provides arts and crafts, games and other activities for free. Nearly 2,700 kids are on a waiting list.
Parents can comment further during a public hearing at 6 p.m. July 17.
Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5303.