Numbers plummet to less than 100
By Kyle LoJacono
Three years ago the Hillsborough County parks department’s after-school program had nearly 6,000 children enrolled at 31 sites, but that number has shriveled to less than 100.
The mere fact it still exists seemed impossible a few short months ago when the Hillsborough Commission voted to eliminate the program, which cost the county $7.5 million to operate and served about 1,800 kids last school year.
Public outcry caused the board to reverse the move in September, after the current school year began. Commissioner Ken Hagan said the plummeting numbers has more to do with the fact that parents and guardians had to find alternative places to send their children.
“We did not approve the new program until after school started,” Hagan said. “Many parents were forced to make their after-school decisions prior to the program going into effect.”
The new program was scaled back in order to cut costs, including offering the after-school care at only 18 centers, including Nye Park in Lutz. Six of those sites have no children enrolled at them, while most have less than 10.
Hagan was the commissioner who first worked out the scaled-down program with parks department director Mark Thornton. They reduced the base price for a week’s care from $48 to $38, and also to as little as $20 for children receiving free or reduced-price lunches, to increase attendance.
“The program is outstanding,” Thornton said. “Unfortunately, the parents had to find other places because of the start of school, and they haven’t been back. We may not grow fast enough, and we may not be able to continue.”
Hagan added, “It wasn’t surprising parents found other places for their kids. We thought the lower price would bring them back, but as of yet it hasn’t.”
The program has until June to bring numbers to levels where it can pay for itself. The parks department is putting out fliers, reaching out with Facebook and YouTube and calling former customers to bring them back.
The commission had slated the after-school program for the chopping block for the last three years because of the large operating cost.
The board had decided it was able to maintain the program in less lean fiscal cycles, but a $50 million shortfall in the current budget made it too expensive to keep at its former level.
Commissioner Kevin Beckner has been one of the more outspoken members who would rather cut the program than lay off other county employees.
“How long do you operate at a loss before you decide to pull the plug on an operation?” Beckner said.
The new scaled-down program does allow the commission to drop any site that has fewer than 25 children enrolled. Currently, all locations have fewer than 25.
Thornton said they will not stop the program at any site just yet.
“We evaluate the program daily,” Thornton said. “We’re not going to give up until we either have a successful program or it’s not going to work.”
For more information on Hillsborough parks, visit www.hillsboroughcounty.org/parks.