Say Yes after-school programs at risk over fund shortage - The Buffalo News

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Say Yes after-school programs at risk over fund shortage

A hallmark of the Say Yes Buffalo initiative was the organization’s pledge, along with the Buffalo School District, to offer after-school programs to students in the district’s public schools.

But now, the organization may have to drastically scale back its plans for the program because of questions about funding.

David Rust, executive director of Say Yes, said the organization originally wanted to offer after-school programs in 28 schools, five days a week, two hours a day starting in October. That plan would have cost the Buffalo schools $14 million, money Rust said he was under the impression the district would come up with.

But now, thousands of students – and after-school service providers – have been left in limbo while the district and Say Yes negotiate a more limited after-school program.

Those offerings would likely serve up to 30 percent of students in participating schools and might only run Mondays to Thursdays in some buildings.

While Rust said the original plan would have served about 9,300 students, the scaled-back version will reach at most 5,500.

The after-school programs were to provide much-needed academic support to 60 percent of students attending participating elementary schools and 40 percent of students in participating high schools.

School officials are grappling with a structural budget deficit that is expected to reach $35.6 million this school year. Even then, the district has allocated about $2 million from its general fund, along with grant funding, to pay for after-school programming.

“The district has been clear about budget constraints since last year’s budget planning sessions,” Superintendent Pamela C. Brown said in a written statement. “However, because of the importance of extended learning time, particularly for academically challenged students, the district has agreed to a significantly higher funding level than that of this past school year.

“We will continue to work with our Say Yes and Community Based Organization partners to plan for the best possible extended learning time opportunities for our students.”

The reduced funding is a major problem for Say Yes, which sees its public commitments to the community being unceremoniously scaled back.

The ones who may be most hurt, however, are the students who need the additional academic support to make college an attainable goal under Say Yes’ promise of college tuition scholarships.

Developing – and paying for – quality after-school programs has been an issue for years in the Buffalo schools. Under the No Child Left Behind law, school districts like Buffalo that consistently failed to meet state standards were required to allocate some of their federal funding to pay for extra tutoring for students, a service typically offered by outside agencies. But that system was largely unregulated, and tutoring providers faced little accountability. So last year the state started allowing school districts to keep that money and develop their own programs.

The Buffalo district started off by operating its own after-school programs but then agreed to work with Say Yes to develop a new model.

Rust said that in August the superintendent told the Say Yes Leadership Council that the district was onboard with the original after-school program model. That framework had been developed by 10 community-based service providers, he said.

“They called it the Cadillac after-school program,” said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “We were told that what we were getting would be worth the inconvenience we were experiencing.”

Rust said he had no inkling that the money to fully fund the district’s after-school programs would be lacking until mid-November. He’d previously chalked up the delays in providing after-school services to first-time operational snags, he said.

“We were not aware there were issues in funding until late in the game,” he said, “Otherwise we would not have made these commitments. We would not have gone down this path without a commitment.”

When Say Yes realized funding was an issue, the group arrived at a compromise for the district to allocate $4.4 million to serve only 30 percent of children in the 28 participating elementary and high schools, Rust said.

But Say Yes administrators received word the day of the Dec. 11 School Board meeting that the district would only allocate $2.5 million toward the after-school program and cut back the after-school programs to only four days week at all the high schools and some elementary schools. A resolution given to the board – but not to Say Yes – also inexplicably increased the number of schools participating in the program even though earmarked dollars were cut in half.

When board member Jason McCarthy attempted to intervene at the meeting and asked Rust to reappear before the board to clarify matters, he was denied.

“We’re clearly a significant partner in this district, and they wouldn’t let their partner come back up and talk about the program they had just signed onto,” Rust said.

Board President Barbara Nevergold said she would instead schedule a special meeting the following week to address the matter.

But the issue didn’t come up the following week either. Instead, both sides have been trying to hammer out another compromise and address the concerns of would-be after-school service providers who are wondering whether they still want to participate, Rust said.

Meanwhile, frantic principals who have promised parents that after-school options will be available soon after the winter break are calling their board members to find out what’s going on.

“Essentially the district put together a skeleton program,” Radford said. “It’s nothing like what they promised us.”

If the district cannot resolve the issue with Say Yes, Radford said the parent council plans to ask the state to revoke the flexibility it has given the Buffalo schools to develop its own tutoring or after-school programs.

Rust, however, said he was hopeful the two organizations would be able to come to a resolution. “We’re going to get through this,” he said.

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