City Council could retreat from after-school care in 2017

Amber Pena, picks up her son Marco Pena, then 6, at the afternoon START program at Tahoe Elementary School in Tahoe Park on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in Sacramento, California
Amber Pena, picks up her son Marco Pena, then 6, at the afternoon START program at Tahoe Elementary School in Tahoe Park on Tuesday, April 14, 2015, in Sacramento, California

Sacramento councilwoman and mayoral candidate Angelique Ashby said this week the city should consider eliminating two school-based child care programs running in the red, arguing that other providers can fill the gap starting in summer 2017.

The two city programs, 4th “R” and START, provide care before and after school for 6,000 students in the Sacramento area. START serves about two-thirds of those students with free child care and receives funding from federal, state and city sources. 4th “R” serves the remaining 2,000 and relies on monthly family tuition payments in addition to a state grant.

“A lot of times here, people talk about 4th ‘R’ and START as if they’re the only after-school programs that exist on these campuses,” Ashby said at a Tuesday budget hearing. “We’re actually applying in some instances to be a provider, which means if we pulled out, others would be the provider.”

Ashby’s leading mayoral opponent, Darrell Steinberg, established START – Students Today Achieving Results Tomorrow – when he served on the City Council in 1996. Steinberg has touted that program, which mostly serves low-income families, among his accomplishments as he campaigns for the city’s top office.

In the next fiscal year, START and 4th “R” are slated in the city’s proposed budget to receive a combined $1.5 million from the city’s general fund and Measure U, a temporary sales tax hike voters approved in 2012.

Councilman Eric Guerra said before- and after-school programs are crucial to helping parents work full-time jobs. He said he would be open to moving away from 4th “R” and START if another provider could deliver similar services, but only if the school districts vouch for the replacement programs. The city operates START in the Sacramento City, Twin Rivers and Robla unified school districts. It provides 4th “R” in Sacramento City, Twin Rivers and Natomas unified school districts.

Sacramento City schools spokesman Gabe Ross said academic, grant-funded alternatives exist for START, but not for 4th “R.”

“There are a couple of instances of other fee-based programs in the district, but we don’t have any reason to believe that there would be any alternatives to replace 4th ‘R’ ” on a large scale, Ross said.

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department operates START mainly at schools with a high share of students eligible for free or reduced-price meals based on low household income. The program is supported through state and federal grants administered by school districts, but individual schools can choose providers. For the upcoming school year, the number of START sites will fall from 31 to 24 as schools hired competing programs, according to city parks director Chris Conlin.

Steinberg explained recently that he persuaded his colleagues in 1996 to launch START after he discovered surplus money in the reserves of the Sacramento Metropolitan Cable Television Commission that was being made available to local governments. The program has come to rely on various sources of funding, and state grants stagnated in 2007 as the recession took hold, leading to financial instability, according to a city staff report.

Steinberg said this week the city should increase its investment in youth programs, including 4th “R” and START. He said he would get city officials and school districts together to come up with a new funding model that would be fair for both entities. He doesn’t believe nonprofits or private providers exist that can offer the same benefits to kids and families, he said.

Both programs were designed to be self-sustaining, but by spring 2015, the deficit reached $1.5 million. City leaders proposed closing 4th “R” at four campuses and cutting ties with START until they reached a compromise with the Sacramento City school district to sustain the programs.

“These after-school and before-school programs are critically important, but they have to be well funded,” Ashby said. After several years of fiscal instability, she said the city’s programs may not be providing the best services.

Patrica Gentle, who has two children at H.W. Harkness Elementary School this year, said she planned to enroll her younger child in the START program in fall 2017, when both students transfer to Rosa Parks K-8 in south Sacramento.

“If they do cut START and bring in another program, that program has to be able to help the children with their homework,” Gentle said. “I think that’s a big concern for parents, making sure that their kids are going to get their homework done if they are in an after-school program – if not completely done, then at least halfway done.”

START and 4th “R” are facing rising costs after employee union Local 39 filed a grievance last year charging that a number of parks employees working in the two programs were underpaid and not receiving benefits.

Fees for 4th “R” haven’t risen in the last five years and low enrollment numbers at some sites are also affecting revenue, according to the parks department. Conlin, the parks director, said the department will conduct a fee analysis over the next year and will likely raise fees for the 2017-18 school year if the city continues the program.

The lion’s share of the $1.5 million shortfall for school-based child care comes from a $1 million gap in 4th “R” funding.

The vast majority of 4th “R” revenue comes from fees paid by families based on hours of care and the number of children enrolled, but the program also receives $702,000 from the state to subsidize a handful of families who qualify based on income.

4th “R” will have an estimated $6.9 million budget in 2016-2017. Costs for parents range from $75 to $565 per month. Of the 18 campuses with 4th “R” programs, three are under-enrolled because they are in direct competition with START programs, according to the city, but START doesn’t have the ability to pick up those 4th “R” students.

Three 4th “R” sites are outside city limits but in the Sacramento City Unified School District. Among START sites, eight exist outside city limits in Twin Rivers and Sacramento City Unified schools.

While the START shortfall is $410,000, the city also must pay an annual grant match of nearly $553,000 this year.

Conlin said some of those schools serve children who reside in the city but attend the schools in the county, as in the case of students from the College Greens neighborhood who attend Sequoia Elementary School.

Guerra, who represents College Greens, said the city has a responsibility to provide services for city residents enrolled in those programs. If county residents use the programs, it wouldn’t hurt to ask the county to pitch in, he said.

Christina Pritchett, president of the Sacramento City Unified School District, said she plans to meet with Sacramento County Supervisor Don Nottoli and Guerra to explore whether the county can provide 4th “R” inside the county.

Ellen Garrison: 916-321-1920, @EllenGarrison