Chalkbeat: Advocates look to speed up negotiations after abrupt cut to summer programs

by Geoff Decker on May 20, 2015 10:48 pm

An education “budget dance” may have begun after summer programs for middle schoolers were suddenly cut this month, but program directors said Wednesday that negotiations will need to be swift if they are to make a difference.

The de Blasio administration has redirected millions from after-school programs for middle school-aged children, just two months after notifying them that funds would be there to continue or expand during the summertime. By the time a notice went out about the cut this month, many programs had already enrolled students and hired staff.

Now, the affected groups are pushing to get de Blasio to restore the funds. But that needs to happen by May 29 at the latest, they say, or the programs won’t be ready for a July 6 start date.

“The problem is that if it happens too late, it’s almost pointless,” said Helene Onserud, program director at the Center for Family Life, which stands to lose funding for 130 of the 330 students enrolled in its summer programs.

For now, Onserud — who took some of her program’s participants to City Hall for a protest on Wednesday — said she can’t make plans until she knows how much money she will have. That means holding off on securing facilities, running security checks on new staff, and informing families about summer offerings.

The cuts have created an awkward situation for de Blasio, not just because he has made after-school expansion for middle school students a priority. As the city’s public advocate, de Blasio criticized the Bloomberg administration’s habit of refusing to fund programs in his budget as a negotiating tactic in order to win concessions from the City Council.

“Every year the notices go out to parents, informing them that the early childhood education program or after-school program they’ve built their lives around has been cut,” de Blasio said in 2013, criticizing Bloomberg’s cuts that year. “Whether the services get restored or not, lives are upended and providers are left scrambling … Our children’s futures deserve more than yet another version of the budget dance.”

This year, de Blasio made cuts even later in the budget cycle.

“I think this was a mistake, a miscalculation,” Onserud said. “Maybe there wasn’t an understanding on his part that this was really needed and people were counting on it.”

The Campaign for Children, a 150-member coalition of early education and after-school groups, estimates that cuts total more than $10 million and will affect more than 17,000 students. But a spokeswoman said those figures are likely much higher because they have heard about cuts from several more programs that were not on an initial list they compiled.

“It’s pretty shocking,” said Susan Matloff-Nieves, associate executive director of the Queens Community House, which operates three programs that lost funding. “It’s unprecedented in my experience — and I’ve been doing this for 25 years — where we’re told there’s money in the mayor’s budget and then it’s pulled back.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Youth and Community Development referred to a statement released last week, pointing out that the city budget includes plans to add 8,000 new after-school seats this September, which would bring the total to almost 86,000.

“This administration has made afterschool expansion a priority, and we will continue to work to make comprehensive afterschool opportunities available to all students,” the spokeswoman said.

The de Blasio administration and the City Council under Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito have been closely aligned on education issues. But coalition members said they hoped council members would begin to apply more pressure to the administration soon. They have already recruited Councilman Mathieu Eugene, who chairs the council’s committee on youth services and came to Wednesday’s protest.

A spokesman for Mark-Viverito declined to comment, saying that hearings on de Blasio’s budget have only just begun. The hearing for youth services is scheduled for May 29.

“We are working out to see what can be done,” Mathieu said. “At this point the negotiation is still going on.”

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