15 Jun After-School Programs Scramble to Stay Open in Wake of Budget Cuts (NJ)

June 15, 2010

By: Harvy Lipman
Source: NorthJersey.com

Four months after Governor Christie cut $5.2 million from an after-school enrichment program for low-income children, most of the non-profits running sites at 16 North Jersey schools have managed to keep them open for the remainder of the school year.

But more than 500 of the approximately 1,200 kids attending New Jersey After 3 programs in Bergen and Passaic counties had to stop attending because their parents couldn’t afford the increased fees the organizations were forced to charge.

How many of the after-school sites will reopen in the fall and how much higher fees will have to rise remains uncertain. The Christie administration has eliminated all funding for New Jersey After 3 from next year’s budget, although one state senator has introduced legislation to reinstate it.

No one is questioning the program’s effectiveness. When the budget cut was announced in February, Michael Drewniak, the governor’s spokesman, described it as "one of those great programs that does great work that benefits a lot of people. The governor said these are among the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. It’s a consequence of the dire economic circumstances the state finds itself in."

‘Out there fighting’

Michael Valli, president of the non-profit New Jersey After 3, noted that Fair Lawn Democratic Sen. Bob Gordon has introduced a budget amendment to reinstate the funding. But with the state’s ongo ing financial crisis, Valli said even if Gordon’s amendment passes, the governor might well use his line-item veto authority to cut the funding anyway.

"It doesn’t mean we’ll be OK, but it does mean somebody’s out there fighting for us," Valli said.

Drewniak didn’t respond to several calls seeking comment on Gordon’s proposal.

Most of the local non-profits that had been receiving funds from New Jersey After 3 have kept their sites open despite the lost funding, but all have reduced services or raised fees.

The Bergen Family Center, which operates a program at the Dr. John Grieco Elementary School in Englewood, launched a special fundraising campaign.

"I’m very pleased and proud of the combination of individuals and organizations that came up with over $20,000," said Mitch Schonfeld, the center’s president.

Schonfeld said the program also increased its fee, asking parents to pay an extra $150 to cover the last three months of the school year. About 10 of 120 children dropped out because their families couldn’t afford the extra money, he added. The center also cut staff and offerings, including a science program provided under a contract with 4-H.

He’s hopeful, however, that the center and the school district will be able to open their New Jersey After 3 site in the fall.

"I’m very optimistic that we’ll get enough money cobbled together in the fall," Schonfeld said. "But I can’t point to any specific money or anything definite."

Some dedicated funds

Englewood School Su perintendent Richard Segall said the district will dedicate some funds it’s received under federal economic stimulus grants toward the program, but under federal regulations that money can only be used for specific educational purposes. Other enrichment programs provided under New Jersey After 3, Segall added, will have to be funded by the center. He also noted that the federal funds run out at the end of the next school year, making the program’s long-term survival problematic.

Jewish Family Service of Bergen County in Teaneck, which operates the New Jersey After 3 program at four elementary schools in Cliffside Park, is taking a different approach.

Fee for service

"We’re moving to a fee-for-service model," said JFS executive director Lisa Fedder. It kept the sites open through the spring by cutting staff and increasing fees, but at a cost: The number of children attending fell from 230 to 100.

Fedder said JFS didn’t have time or staff for a major fund-raising effort. She noted that even with the increased fees, the non-profit is underwriting much of the program’s cost. "We’re trying to keep fees at the $400 level, but the full cost is about $1,000 per child."

Cliffside Park Superintendent Michael J. Romagnino said the school district’s capacity to underwrite the costs is also limited. "We’re losing $1.8 million in state aid," he noted. "We’re not going to be able to fund this ourselves."

New Jersey After 3 programs in Passaic County also have scrambled to keep afloat. At least one, operated by the New Jersey Community Development Corp. at Paterson School 5, was shut down. William Paterson University ended its contract to run the program at Paterson School 27, but it was picked up by the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic. The club also took over operation of the site at Paterson’s Norman S. Weir Elementary School from the Paterson YMCA.

Peter Thornton said the Boys & Girls Club also has managed to keep the program going at two other sites it was already operating: Thomas Jefferson School 1 in Passaic and Paterson School 10.

"We simply charged a fee and encouraged parents who are low income to use government subsidies," Thornton said. The program also cut staff. About half the children – 110 – dropped out.

Uncertainty about fall

Thornton is unsure whether the programs will reopen in the fall.

"A lot of it has to do with the school districts and whether we will be able to arrange for parents to be subsidized," he said. "As the school districts face cutbacks in janitorial and security staff, they expect outside providers to pay overtime. We’re willing to do that, but we haven’t gotten all the permissions yet from the schools."

He added that launching a fund-raising campaign for the New Jersey After 3 kids was impractical. "Everything we do is for kids after school," Thornton said. "We need to raise more money period. We’re not making ends meet now."

U.S. funds targeted

Robert Foster, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Clifton, said the organization also had to increase fees for parents at its site, Clifton Elementary School 7. The program lost about 45 of its 189 students.

Valli said the New Brunswic k-based New Jersey After 3 is trying to find other funding sources to replace the state money.

"We’ve been going after a whole new set of federal funds," he said. "We just submitted a $5 million grant proposal to the Department of Education."

But he said that some of the private foundations and corporations that have backed the program in the past have said they may discontinue their support if the state eliminates New Jersey After 3 from its budget.

"Even some of our most loyal supporters are saying, ‘We’ll see how the state budget works out,’ " Valli said. "We’ve been told some grants may be contingent on state funding. We’ve been frank with the state about this. Most federal grants require matching funds. The $10 million state appropriation helped us leverage $9 million more. That’s a pretty darn good deal for the state."

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