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Parks Department under fire; mismanagement leads to $900K shortfall

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image Olga Hatheld and Ralph Carlini discuss what would happen to local children whose parents can’t afford more expensive childcare if the parks programs aren’t kept in place. Penny Fletcher Photo

Parents hope this could stall projected end to children’s programs

By PENNY FLETCHER

SOUTH COUNTY — Parents thought eliminating the after school and summer programs at parks was a done deal from the paperwork they received but they still planned to put up a fight.

They’re hoping parents of children in all six of South County’s after-school or summer programs at parks will show up at Gardenville Recreation Center on Symmes Road May 18 at 6 p.m. when Bobbi Davis, resource manager for the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County, which (along with other agencies) has come up with a plan to replace the programs, will speak.

The 41 county centers that have provided after-school and summer care for elementary-age children were due to stop these programs in August 2011to save money. One of them, Balm Park, is closing after this school year ends; without hosting a summer program at all.

Transportation from schools to the centers and hikes in per-child fees has caused enrollment to drop severely during the past four years, except in places where the elementary school is adjacent to the park, like in Riverview.

But now, a discovery by county auditors shows that paperwork has been improperly done (or not turned in at all) and has caused a shortfall of nearly $900,000 in the receipt of school readiness funds earmarked for children who receive free lunches in school.

In other words, the parks department should have received federal funds for each of these children to attend after-school and summer programs but didn’t.

Other flaws were also cited in accounting; some which happened at local levels and some higher up, on the report which can be viewed on line at the Clerk of Circuit Court Web site.

Some parents are hoping the problem with the audit could work in their favor as they continue to plead with County Commissioners to “Just say no” to the budget turned in by Parks and Rec which was made part of the county’s total fiscal budget last month but must still be approved by Commissioners.

“The funding for the Parks, Recreation (and Conservation) Department was already approved at the County’s budget meeting last month,” parents said at a meeting at Gardenville Recreation Center in Gibsonton April 21. “And it did not include after-school care and summer programs for elementary-age children like it had for more than 25 years. Instead we’ve been told our kids will be kept at their schools or the park facilities rented out to groups like the YMCA.”

Mark Thornton, director of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, has claimed since coming to Hillsborough County in 2008 that the children’s programs are just too expensive to continue with county budget so tight.

But the new findings by county auditor Dan Pohto and his staff may assist parents by showing the money may actually be available.

For several years parents have protested cutting programs and raising fees for these supervised programs where children get not only activities, but organized sports, computer time, and homework help after school.

Summer programs were chocked full of daily activities and field trips, all supervised by licensed child care personnel.

Olga Hatheld, mother of three, said she has researched the programs and sees many differences between what the county is proposing and what the children have now.

It isn’t just a matter of tightening their belts. It’s a matter of seeing that children get proper supervision and physical activity, said parent Joe Buerhop.

“OST (the after school program at elementary schools) is more like warehousing kids in the cafeteria, no sports or physical activities. And plans show it will employ high school and college students to watch the kids during the summer break. Now that is just not the same as the licensed daycare personnel we have now at the parks,” said Olga.

Olga is a medical assistant but in May will be going to school at night to obtain her nursing degree. “Working and going to school I will need to know my children are well cared for. And I know I must get this degree so I will be able to continue to work.”

In the poor economy- especially with so many baby boomers aging- Olga is certain nursing jobs will rise while other jobs dry up.

The county has defended cutting the after school programs for several years. Parks Director Mark Thornton has maintained through many interviews with The Observer News that they are just too expensive to operate.

First, they tried raising the fees, per child, based on a sliding scale income. Then last fall, The Observer News wrote about a new program called Adopt a Camper where individuals and groups could sponsor a child who would otherwise be left alone at home after school and summers while his or her parent (or parents) worked.

But this did not work in the most depressed areas where people had nothing to give after paying rent and buying food and little else.

The poorest areas of South County were hit the hardest of its six centers; including Balm, Gibsonton and Ruskin.

Despite these attempts, the department still maintained, as of April 15, that a system of school and provider (YMCA etc.) based care would be easier to fund.

And they pointed to a drop in children attending the parks programs; but parents say this is because bus transportation from school continues to be cut.

For instance, even though Gibsonton Elementary School on GIbsonton Drive and Gardenville Recreation Center on Symmes Road are less than two miles apart, the school system will not approve a bus from that school to the center because, according to Lynda Cobbe in an interview with The Observer News in 2008, “the school is on the wrong side of the road and is out of the district.”

This lack of busing has reduced the rate of attendance, which in turn has reduced the staff, park employees say.

After attending parent meetings on both April 21 and May 9, I could see parents were prepared to fight for their children’s programs.

“We must convince the County Commissioners to understand everything isn’t just figures,” said Chavaun Bussey.

Chavaun works near Fletcher Avenue in north Tampa and says she must fight traffic every day to get home to pick up her four children.

“I have four children in the after-school program now and pay $80 a week. But in the summer I’ll also have a stepchild so that will make five. I can’t pay hundreds of dollars for childcare. And this program (at the parks) provides the physical exercise they no longer get since most of the PE has been eliminated from the elementary schools.”

There are no longer any multi-child discounts, she said. “I must pay full price for each child and it will cost me $480 per child to get them in the summer program.”

“This means a lot of children will spend their whole summer home alone,” said Ralph Carlini. “Is that what our County Commissioners really want?”

 

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