Public Reacts to County’s After-School Program Recommended Changes

Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department Director Mark Thornton, left, replies to concerned residents during a public meeting held in connection with the department’s proposal to cut county’s after-school programs at most of its community recreation centers.

A series of public meetings held throughout the county has been receiving plenty of input offered by concerned, and in most cases upset, parents in connection with the recommended changes to the after-school program offered by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department.
The meetings held and presented by the Roundtable to Plan Services for the Children of Hillsborough County, were designed to accept public comment and to inform parents and community partners about changes, offered by Parks, Recreation and Conservation Director Mark Thornton.
Representing the Roundtable, Bobby Davis was prepared to explain the recommendations to residents that focused on maximizing the county’s financial and staffing resources, taking full advantage of the community resources already providing out-of-school time activities and increasing the number of children able to participate in after-school programs due to financial assistance.
Unfortunately, Davis’ presentation seemed to come to a screeching halt as parents objected to the county’s claim of not enough resources to run the programs and of such programs’ possible elimination.
“I don’t think you know or understand what these recreation centers and after-school programs held there really mean to us and our children,”  said  Ruskin resident Ruben Soto, while attending one of the 11 meetings held this month.
“These centers are not just some kind of baby sitter for us and our kids, but a place where they enjoy going, learn and are helped with homework and enjoy the staff,” Soto said. “Your statistics are incorrect and do not represent us here in Ruskin or any of the other communities.”
During a heated moment, Thornton emphasized the reasons for his recommendation to the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) to close the programs, while keeping 12 of the 42 community centers as regional centers throughout the county, where parents can continue to bring their children.
“There is no money,” Thornton said replying to Soto during the uncomfortable moment, adding, “And I am not responsible for the economy’s collapse.”
In explanation, Thornton said that while the recommendation to get out of the county’s after-school programs and to do some restructuring was due to the decline in attendance at all facilities, once the necessary fees to run the programs were enforced.
Thornton also wanted to emphasize that such changes do not mean that the county is leaving the parents without any options.
“It is our plan to work with the members of the community providing them with information about other facilities available within their community, which they may take advantage of and utilize such as local Y or Boys and Girls clubs, but we will not provide financial aid,” he said.
Besides the proposed regional centers, which will operate with a limited amount of staff, the existing county community centers will continue to function but with no staff, Thornton said.
While Thornton acknowledged that it is a great change for everyone, such notion provided little comfort for most residents, who take advantage of each the after-school programs.
Interestingly, for Ruskin residents some reason for optimism came from Thornton himself when he mentioned that the Ruskin Recreation Center will likely remain as one of the 12 proposed regional facilities.
The series of these meetings will continue until Saturday, June 4, and will give residents a chance to return and voice their concerns during a second round of meetings.
A decision by the HBCC will be based on the results of the public and county staff input. 
For more information about the recommended changes to the after-school program offered by the Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department, please visit www.hillsboroughcounty.org or call Willie Puz, Public Information Manager, Hillsborough County Communications Department, at 307-8379.

Remaining Public Meeting Schedule
County staff will be available at the weekly meetings to supervise children
Weekday meetings will be held from 6-7 p.m. on the following days:
•  Wednesday, June 1: University Area Community Center, 14013 N. 22nd St. in Tampa
•  Wednesday, June 8: Brandon Community Center, 502 E. Sadie St. in Brandon
 Saturday meetings will be held from 10-11 a.m. on the following days:
•   Saturday, June 4: All People’s Life Center, 6105 E. Sligh Ave. in Tampa
 All information presented will be the same at each meeting so parents and community partners have the option to attend any meeting.
 For more information on meeting dates and locations, call 635-8110.