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Update: City may hand after-school program over to school district to save $300,000

MIKE OWEN

mowen@ledger-enquirer.com

A task force has been created to help keep the Columbus Aquatic Center fully operational.
A task force has been created to help keep the Columbus Aquatic Center fully operational.

The city of Columbus is considering getting out of the child care business, City Manager Isaiah Hugley confirmed Wednesday.

They city’s Parks and Recreation Department operates before- and/or after-school programs at about 23 Muscogee County elementary and middle schools, according to the city’s Parks and Recreation website. The city loses about $300,000 a year performing the service, Hugley said.

At a time when the city is stretched thin financially and struggling to keep the doors fully open at the new Columbus Aquatic Center, and to prepare a balanced budget for fiscal 2017, losing that much money on the program doesn’t make sense, Hugley said.

Hugley said he spoke this week to School Superintendent David Lewis about potentially handing the service over to the district. He also said that the district has already started transitioning to handling the program in-house, having taken it over at several schools.

“Since they have already started to transition, and the program is costing us so much money, we decided to propose to council that we continue through the rest of the school year and through the summer, but end our participation beginning next school year,” Hugley said.

Lewis confirmed that Hugley had spoken to him about the prospect, and he said he understands the financial straits facing the city, as they are facing the school district. But he is not sure the district can provide the level of service the city has provided, at least not immediately.

“While I realize there are budgetary constraints facing the city, the reduction of these programs will prove difficult for our working families,” Lewis said. “I will be meeting with appropriate district staff as soon as possible to review and discuss options, but it is unlikely that given the compressed timeline that the school district will be able to provide programming at the current levels by this fall.”

Last week, when faced with the prospect of cutting back substantially on the hours that the Aquatic Center would operate, Columbus Council directed the administration to go back and see where cuts could be made to make up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to maintain the full 89-hour weekly schedule.

“You may have to shut some programs down,” Councilor Glenn Davis said. “I can’t tell you which ones, but you’re going to have to go through and sort them out.

Asked if the decision was part of the normal annual budget process or whether it was tied directly to the fiscal problems at the Columbus Aquatic Center, Hugley said, “Both.”

“We were instructed by Council to come up with ways to keep the Aquatic Center open for 89 hours a week,” Hugley said. “It could be part of helping to keep the Aquatic Center open for 89 hours, or for however many hours we can afford. It might be less than 89 hours. But this would certainly help us with the Parks and Recreation budget.”

According to the city’s website, before and after school programs are offered at Clubview, Dawson, Eagle Ridge, Forrest Road, Gentian, Georgetown, Hannan, Johnson, St. Mary’s, Lonnie Jackson, Mathews, North Columbus and South Columbus elementary schools. Before school only is offered at Arnold, Midland and Veterans middle schools. After school only is offered at Dimon, Downtown, Reese Road, Rigdon Road and Waddell elementary schools.

Fees, which are based on household income run from $15 to $56 a week for after school and $13 to $25 a week for before school. Fees for both range from $25 to $72 a week.

For now, city employees get a discount. On the same sliding income scale, they pay from $18-$46 for after-school, $11-$21 for before-school and $21-$58 for both.

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