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Legislature's crippling blow leaves Tampa's Prodigy program scrambling for funding

Elementary school children participate in a Prodigy keyboard class at the University Area Community Center Complex.

LENORA LAKE | Special to the Times

Elementary school children participate in a Prodigy keyboard class at the University Area Community Center Complex.

UNIVERSITY AREA — An 80 percent cut in state funding for a free 17-year-old cultural arts program for at-risk children and youth will likely result in significantly less classes, a 66 percent staff reduction and the closing of a multicultural center in Town 'n Country.

The state budget, approved Monday night by the Florida legislature, includes $1 million for the Prodigy Cultural Arts Program for the 2017-18 fiscal year — a drop from $4.6 million in the current fiscal year, ending June 30, said Mike Trepper, Prodigy director. The program is offered through the nonprofit University Area Community Development Corp. (UACDC).

Gov. Rick Scott can veto the entire budget, veto line items or accept it as presented, so the program's funding remains a bit uncertain, but a dramatic increase in state funding seems unlikely.

Prodigy's "holistic model" offers students ages 7 to 17 dance, art, spoken word, theater and music in a juvenile diversion and prevention program. It began in 2000 at the University Area Community Center and now serves more than 2,000 students in six counties with Hillsborough programs at the community center and in Brandon, Valrico, Ruskin, Town 'n Country and Sulphur Springs.

Program managers expected a reduction in funding but the severity of it stunned them. They had spent months on an awareness campaign through city, county and state elected officials; the media; and community members

"This program works. To make these kind of decisions is bewildering," Trepper said. "It is not fiscally prudent; it is not socially prudent."

Trepper said the development corporation is working on plans for the immediate and long-term future.

"There isn't a business or organization that can prepare for an 80 percent cut,'' Trepper added, saying that $200,000 of the $1 million was earmarked by the state legislature for the program in Lacoochee near Dade City in Pasco County.

The program director said the designated funds should cover the Lacoochee program but many others will be cut. Of the 150 total staff members — ranging from full-time to contractors — about 100 could lose their jobs.

The University center's offerings "will have priority" since it is the program's home base, Trepper said.

"We have to bring it closer to home; for those host sites to continue they have to come to the table with a lot more," he said.

Among those sites is the Hanley Multicultural Family Center in Town 'n Country, run by the Florida Institute for Community Studies, where founder Alayne Unterberger started an online petition this week asking Gov. Scott to help save the Prodigy program.

"On June 30, I will have 400 families that I will have to say, 'We have nothing for you,' " Unterberger said in an interview Monday. Later that night she posted on Facebook that the institute could not afford the $3,700 a month rent without the Prodigy funding. It would have to close its doors.

"The Prodigy program was always a pretty safe haven for kids. It was in areas of communities with the highest crime. Prodigy has been a real catalyst for change in our kids," she said in the interview.

"This is something we have built. I have had kids from gangs show up and I told them, 'Leave the colors at the door.' They did and have gotten involved with us."

Through Prodigy, students also receive academic tutoring and each is assigned to a "success coach." Family support also is offered with the cost running about $2,000 a year for each child served.

Unterberger and others are seeking donors and grants and looking for people to hold fundraisers to help them lessen the cuts. The community development corporation held a Prodigy cocktail hour Wednesday to tell others about the situation and are exploring other options, including assessing fees for classes.

Another option may be diversifying revenue streams through social enterprises.

"Think Goodwill Stores or Girl Scout cookies," Community Foundation of Tampa Bay vice president Matt Spence wrote an in email. "The best local example is Metropolitan Ministries' Inside the Box cafes and catering. They train program participants in Culinary Arts and provide a very high quality café style lunch experience as well.

"We, and other local funders like the Children's Board of Hillsborough County, offer grant competitions specifically for nonprofit social enterprise. In fact, we recently awarded the Pinellas Ex-Offender Reentry Coalition with a $50,000 grant to launch a Tiny House Manufacturing Company," he wrote.

In the final analysis, Trepper said it is all hard to understand.

"There is no rhyme or reason for this. We have been successful for 17 years."

Contact Lenora Lake at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Legislature's crippling blow leaves Tampa's Prodigy program scrambling for funding 05/11/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 11, 2017 10:34am]
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