Hillsborough approves idea of restoring after-school parks programs

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners approved a plan Wednesday to restore many of the county's after-school programs as they continued to get hammered by parents.

Commissioner Ken Hagan floated the proposal to put some form of the programs at 18 additional neighborhood parks, on top of the 11 that reopened with the start of the school year Tuesday.

How the programs will be structured is still to be decided, but Hagan said he'd like them restarted by Oct. 3.

Some commissioners expressed concern that the county is keeping afloat a program it can no longer afford by asking taxpayers without children to subsidize those with.

But Hagan said he believes his proposal may pay for itself.

"I share your concerns," Hagan said to fellow board members. "I'll be the first one to say, 'If the program isn't working, let's pull the plug.' "

The commission vote, technically to have its staff develop a game plan by Sept. 8 for reopening park sites, was unanimous.

The after-school parks programs have been a recurring point of contention among commissioners for several budget cycles.

For years, the county had offered what were once a form of free day care at county parks for elementary and middle school students, who could take part in athletics and arts and crafts, or do homework, in a safe setting after school while their parents finish their workday.

As of last year, the programs were offered at 42 parks.

Parks officials began proposing cutbacks to the program three years ago when property tax receipts began falling due to the tanking real estate market.

Parents protested and commissioners responded by instituting some fees to offset the costs. When that wasn't enough, they increased the fees to $48 weekly.

Children from poor families got reduced rates. Nevertheless, enrollment plummeted from a high of more than 6,000 children to just more than 1,800 last year. So parks officials proposed, and commissioners initially approved, scaling back the program to 11 regional parks with the start of this school year.

When those parks programs opened their doors Tuesday, just 186 children showed up, with none arriving at some locations.

Commissioners said that was due to letters sent by the county to parents late last month telling them that the after-school program as they knew it was ending. Getting children from their schools to the nearest park is also a challenge, as no free transportation is offered.

Parents are rightfully confused about what is available, said Commissioner Les Miller.

He has argued for keeping the program intact as a legitimate government service that enables children of working families to participate in constructive activity after school.

"We should be providing high-quality recreation," he said.

Miller has also lamented the dozens of county employees who stand to lose their jobs at a time when it is particularly difficult to find another one. Hagan's proposal won't spare all of them.

In order for it to work, it relies on converting many full-time jobs to part-time ones as the main cost savings. Hagan also proposed reducing the maximum fee to $38, which he hopes will boost enrollment, bringing in more money to pay those part-time workers and their full-time supervisors.

Families who can show their children qualify for reduced-cost school lunches would be charged $30 weekly per child. Those who qualify for free lunch would be charged $20.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner noted that the board has taken several stabs at keeping the program going without success. While he voted for Hagan's proposal, he questioned whether it was time to scrap the program, a variation of which is already offered at elementary and middle schools more cost effectively.

"At what point do we consider this business model broken?" he asked. "How long do you operate at a loss?"

Commissioners will give Hagan's proposal a school year to see if it works and, if it doesn't, reevaluate those questions then.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

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To learn more

For more information about available county parks programs, or for registration forms, go to hillsboroughcounty.org/parks.

Hillsborough approves idea of restoring after-school parks programs 08/24/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 11:56pm]

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