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No school bus transport equals no after-school program

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By MELODY JAMESON

BALM – No longer served by school busses, an after-school program here with low attendance may fall victim to the tight budget ax.

That prospect concerns local residents who wonder if elimination of the program could foretell closure of the park that is a center of their community life. And, the situation has taken on a “chicken or egg” aspect that especially bothers some among them.

Continued after-school activities at the county park in the apex of C.R. 672 and the Balm-Wimauma Road now is “ under review,” Mark Thornton, head of Hillsborough County’s Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, acknowledged this week. There are just four young people remaining in the program now, Thornton pointed out. He said he did not know the savings in dollars that would be realized if the program were eliminated.

In past years, local youngsters by the dozens were transported to the park with its open playground and enclosed civic center seating to do homework, engage in athletics, play board games, enjoy arts and crafts, all under supervision from 2 to 6 PM when working parents returned home. Their school busses came from as many as a half dozen area schools to drop them off at the park entrance.

But, beginning a couple of years ago as Hillsborough’s public school system budget grew leaner, bussing students outside their school zones gradually was eliminated, Thornton noted. The result has been that fewer and fewer youngsters found their way to the park to take part in the after-school program, causing the participation level to fall drastically.

IMG_1636Thornton’s perspective, though, does not square with other information. Marcella O’Steen, the community’s civic association president, said this week she understands that a Summerfield Elementary School bus passes within yards of the park each school day afternoon. Letting off youngsters who would participate in the after school program if they were allowed to exit the bus could increase the program population to 20 or more, she suggested.

She also noted that a Wimauma Elementary school bus still transports youngsters from that community to its Bethune Park for after-school care.

Another aspect of the situation is a for-profit school-related transport system. An entity known as Recreation Express, for example, fills just such voids as that now developing in the Balm Park program. Recreation Express transports children from their schools to after-school supervision in places like county parks for a fee. The charge is in the $60 per month range, per child, with a discount available for multiple youngsters from the same family.

Asked if county school busses no longer service the Balm Park program in order to make way for the profit-making systems, Thornton emphatically replied that it’s just the opposite. It’s not that the school bus system has given way to provide openings for entities such as Recreation Express, but rather that the for-profit systems have come into existence to provide service no longer available through the school system, he asserted. Thornton also emphasized that he is not associated in any way with Recreation Express.

IMG_1638“That’s something of a which came first, the chicken or the egg, isn’t it?” O’Steen asked rhetorically. “And, if there’s a county school bus passing our park each school day anyway, it simply does not make sense to me.”

As for the additional transportation costs to a family using a for-profit system, she noted that the justified increases in after-school program fees, when coupled with higher transport charges, put the after-school care out of reach for some families. “Then, children forego after-school care entirely and become latch-key kids,” she added.

There is one point on which O’Steen and Thornton do agree. Both point to the importance of the park to a community that also hosts a county landfill, a state prison and number of open pits where dirt for construction projects in other areas was mined. Both mention the community’s investment in the park and its building.

O’Steen ticks off year around uses of the park: where children come with parents or grandparents or older siblings to play outside; where residents get together for a pickup game under the basketball hoop or a friendly softball contest; where farm workers gather to share lunch in the picnic area; where community socials are held; where the civic association meets regularly, where one of the area’s top candidate forums is conducted each election cycle – and where a highly successful summer youth program is held.

Plus, she adds, community members donated the land for the park as well as put up money to furnish the civic center building. “We don’t have many county services here, but we do have these and value them greatly,” she summed up, referring both to the park and to the after-school program.

Thornton, acknowledging the community’s justified attachment to the park, said that other than possible elimination of the after-school program there, “no other changes are contemplated.”

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson
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