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Close Call

The Capital District YMCA steps in to try and save important after-school programs in Albany

by Darryl McGrath on March 27, 2013 · 1 comment

Urban school districts have long used the combination approach to programs that are believed to improve student achievement, and Albany City Schools are no exception. And so when word recently spread that the school system’s highly regarded after-school program at five of the city’s elementary schools might be cut from next year’s budget, parents understandably worried.

“My kids are both benefiting from the after-school, and without that benefit, I’m not sure what I would do,” said Millie Garcia, a past president of the North Albany Academy Parent-Teacher Association who has a daughter and a son at North Albany. “This program is great.”

Garcia and the parents of the other 300 children enrolled in the after-school program around the city—it’s also at Arbor Hill and Giffen Memorial elementary schools, as well as Sheridan Prepatory and Schuyler Achievement academies—have just learned that the program in fact will be saved. The Capital District YMCA, which had funded a portion of the program’s cost for many years, has agreed to raise the $540,000 that the school district had budgeted but now must cut for its after-school offerings.

“Let me be clear: We don’t have the half-million dollars. But we’re going to raise it somehow,” said David Brown, the Y’s president and chief executive officer. “We just feel—me, as the president of the Y, and our board of directors—very strongly that these 300 kids need the after-school program.”

Albany Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the Y’s response was typical of the community support for the city’s public schools she has marked since starting the job.

“We can’t be an isolated system; we have to have partners,” she said. “The Y has been a partner for many years in the city school district of Albany. And as partners, we’re thrilled they did it.”

The program offers children a range of services and activities, Garcia said, including computer skills, library time, recreation, reading time and the helpful presence of a concerned, trained adult staff. The summer counterpart offers six weeks of day-camp-style fun for children, and a few times a year, the program runs a “movie night” for kids that gives parents a few extra hours of time to themselves. For parents who often cannot afford private child care and may not qualify for any child-care subsidies if they are working, the program is a tremendous help, she said.

“Any working parent that gets a paycheck, we don’t qualify for subsidies,” said Garcia, who is a secretary for the Civil Service Employees Association.

Education think tanks and schools of education offer mixed reviews on the value of after-school programs. There’s also a debate on how to get more children to enroll in them—a concern that has always affected the federally funded free and reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs, as well. A 2008 study by the Harvard Family Research Project at the Harvard School of Education said that well-run programs can be helpful, especially to disadvantaged students, but research and evaluation studies do not always show clear-cut benefits. A 2009 study at Teachers College of Columbia University, done by the Campaign for Educational Equity, also gave a cautious endorsement, saying that such programs “may lead to small gains in academic outcomes,” but that based on existing research, schools would be well advised to “take steps to ensure that all youth can access the potentially beneficial activities offered through high quality after-school programs.”

But no one in Albany is debating the value of the program, especially in light of the near-miss with a budget cut and the concern by parents that rippled through the school district when word first spread of the program’s possible demise. Vanden Wyngaard said she is simply grateful that the Y is willing to undertake a strenuous fundraising campaign for the after-school program. “They believe in it; they believe in Albany,” she said.

The after-school program is of course one fairly small, albeit important, chink in the overall Albany school budget. As Metroland was going to press, the school district learned that it may receive as much as $5 million more in state aid than originally expected, but that doesn’t mean the district is guaranteed to magically close a budget gap for next year that may stand at $7 million. The district must plan for long-range expenses that it knows are coming down the road, spokesman Ron Lesko said, and any school district that did not set aside an emergency reserve in these uncertain times could be accused of poor planning by the same taxpayers who sometimes wonder why districts don’t tap their reserves in tough years.

“One of the things we absolutely must do is look ahead to our expenses, and we know we may have a budget gap of $4.5 million to 5 million for 2014-2015,” Lesko said. “We’re putting $10 million a year into our reserves.”

A final budget is not yet ready; the district is holding budget workshops now. Under the state’s property-tax-cap law, Albany cannot increase its budget by more than 3.36 percent without approval of a “super majority” of 60 percent of voters. Albany has not voted down a school budget since 2007, and Lesko said he hopes voters will understand the difficult and stressful choices the school board will make this year. As many as 100 jobs could be cut, but the district is going to try to hold that number down to the absolute minimum as it prepares to put its case to the voters.

“We’ve been very fortunate in this community,” Lesko said. “Last year, we had 70 percent [budget] approval.”