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Parents make plea to save county after-school programs

Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 03:00 PM

Her voice wavering, her hand pointing toward the heavens, Tina Chamberlain begged Hillsborough County commissioners Thursday evening not to end the county's after-school recreation program in Ruskin.

Chamberlain, a working single mother of two, said she would have to consider dropping health insurance or turning off the air conditioning if she had to put her children in private after-school care.

What's more, she said the counselors with the county parks after-school program provide loving care for her kids, one of whom had problems in other settings.

"Most programs throw him out because he's hard to handle," said Chamberlain, who added that she skipped breaks and lunch at work to attend the meeting. "They understand how to deal with him, how to motivate and work with him."

Chamberlain was one of dozens of parents who expressed anger, pain and disbelief at the proposed closure of the parks after-school program. County parks director Mark Thornton has proposed ending the $8 million program because of falling participation and declining revenues.

Also filling the crowd of more than 300 at the Florida State Fairgrounds were numerous county employees, some wearing green T-shirts with the union logo of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The employees were protesting proposed layoffs in the Parks, Recreation and Conservation department. Many of those layoffs would come from ending the after-school program, so the employees and parents shared a spirit of camaraderie and applauded each other's speeches.

Many parents who spoke said they had attended the after-school program when they were kids. They described an atmosphere where children could learn and grow up to be decent and responsible adults.

"It's a family; it's not just a place for them to go to play," said Meagan Cox, who started attending Brandon Park when she was 6 and started working there as a counselor when she was 16. Her daughter Haylee, 10, attends the same park.

Thornton said the county school system and non-profits like the YMCA offer much the same services and can operate for less money.

But parents from outlying areas like Riverview and Ruskin said there are no programs in their neighborhoods or, if there are, they aren't of the caliber of the county care.

"You may say there are other options to us, the parents at the park, but there are not other options," said Kim Herman, who stood at the microphone with her three children.

County employees protested coming layoffs and plans to privatize mowing and other maintenance at the county parks. They expressed outrage at being cast aside like broken toys after working years without raises.

"We're about to lay off almost 100 employees," said Juan Basso, a union leader. "They've been here for years; they love their jobs. The private sector can't compete with county employees. We take our job to heart."

Employees and parents got a glimmer of good news when Commissioner Ken Hagan said at workshop earlier Thursday that he wants to expand the number of regional parks that will continue to have after-school programs. Thornton had proposed consolidating 42 parks with recreation programs to 11 or 12.

Hagan said he wants Thornton to come up with a "hybrid" plan that would add 15 to 20 more parks. The programs would not require child care licenses and would be more focused on educational or recreational activities.

Parents would probably have to pay a fee closer to the $48 a week that schools charge, Hagan said. The county has the same fee, but Thornton said that with a sliding scale based on income, the average collected is $22 a week per child.

msalinero@tampatrib.com (813) 259-8303