Our businessman mayor, schooled in the profit-driven efficiencies of the private sector, is trying to save a little money this budget cycle by shifting around some city-funded after-school programs. In so doing he has galvanized politicians and educational activists throughout Brooklyn and Queens. Stretching from East New York to central Brooklyn all the way up through Bushwick and Ridgewood and then curving back towards Elmhurst and Corona is a crescent shape of educational and economic need in both boroughs.
"These cuts are in Brooklyn, in my district," decried Councilwoman Letitia James at City Hall last Wednesday. "These cuts are going to disproportionately affect communities of color. Where will these children who live in the epicenter of poverty in this city go?"
Later that night Hiram Monserrate, a councilman representing Corona and parts of Elmhurst in Queens, came to a community forum in Bushwick. "Today," he rallied in Spanish to the crowd of parents and concerned neighbors, "let’s plant our flag for Brooklyn and Queens. Let’s plan a victory to ensure our kids’ future. With all due respect to my friends in the Bronx and Manhattan, right now I am fighting for Queens and Brooklyn."
The Bushwick forum was convened by the Brooklyn-Queens 4 Education Collaboration (BQ4E) (Make the Road by Walking is a founding member of BQ4E), a collective of advocacy groups focused on Region 4 in the New York City school system. Region 4 includes Bushwick, Ridgewood, Woodside, Astoria, Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst. The goals of the BQ4E were ambitious, hoping for an increase in the general funding for after-school programs. According to the group’s fact sheet, only 20 percent of school-age youth in Region 4 are served by after-school programs.
The focus of the earlier City Hall press conference, meanwhile, was to preserve an ACS-run after-school program that for decades has been serving thousands of kids. In the mayor’s initial budget proposal, he advocated switching the ACS programs over to the Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD), expanding a less expensive program which is abbreviated as OST, for Out of School Time.
"The Mayor thinks he has given us something," complained Elaine Manatu, a parent of two children who currently attend the Stagg Street Center for Children in Williamsburg, "but I don’t know any parents who want these OST programs. We’d rather pay a little fee and do the ACS. It’s not enough to just hire babysitters. Our children deserve culture, tutoring, and organized recreation."
Flanking Manatu were dozens of DC1707 members, a union that represents child care workers. "They say they’re still going to help 5,000 kids," explained one of those workers, Jaclyn Tahana, "but they’ll be picking up new kids and the old ones are going to be the losers."
Indeed, the new OST centers will be so-called drop-in centers, while the ACS programs provide transportation from hundreds of schools to dozens of after-school centers.
"New York City has the most progressive and organized child care operation in the nation," argued DC1707 Executive Director Raglan George, "but the city is taking a step backwards with these changes. More than 5,000 children will not be served and some 250 schools formerly served will receive nothing."
Not only will the new OST programs be harder to get to for many children, but they also will not be as specialized. "These centers were built specifically for early children," explained Larry Provette, director of the Stagg Street Center, in front of City Hall. "It’s not just the trained workers we’re losing, but also the architecture."
Provette then produced a letter from the ACS telling him that his building’s lease would not be renewed by the city. "They’re saying we don’t use each square foot as efficiently, which is true," he conceded, "because they’re factoring in our assembly area and our playground on the roof into their formula."
But Provette went on to argue the obvious: that it is precisely those extra spaces that help the current ACS locations provide such desired services for the kids. Under the mayor’s cost-saving initiatives, more children will be shoehorned into less space.
"You don’t have money for our children," chided east Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron, directly addressing Hizzoner, "but you have money for your rich friends. You have millions of dollars to spend on the Mets and the Yankees and the Nets. Don’t say it’s a money issue."
Queens Councilman David Weprin, who stood next to James and Barron at the press conference, agreed. "It’s unbelievable that in a surplus year," decried the Finance Committee chairman, "we’re talking about cutting basic services that our children need. On May 4, the Mayor will officially present his executive budget, and typically that includes restorations. I’m hoping these programs are restored." The mayor’s office did not return the Ledger/Star’s repeated requests for comment.
All seven council members representing parts of Region 4 – Monserrate, Eric Gioia, Erik Dilan, Diana Reyna, Dennis Gallagher, Helen Sears, and Peter Vallone – were given three weeks advance notice about the Bushwick forum, but only Monserrate attended.
"I’m going to fight this fight internally within the City Council," he promised the crowd of 100, most of whom spoke Spanish, "but you have to help, too. You have to fight within the community for these wonderful programs that our children need. We have to send a message that we need more resources."
Earlier in the day at City Hall, James wholeheartedly agreed. "We have got to get our priorities straight," she rallied, before echoing Barron’s earlier comparison. "When you spend billions upon billions of dollars on stadiums, it’s time to invest in our human infrastructure." Later that day, James and Barron were the only two council members not to approve financing of the Mets’ new stadium. (Barron voted no, while James abstained.)
"My mother did it for me," continued James. "I come from poverty. I stand here with these parents," she said, looking back at the mostly black faces behind her on the steps of City Hall, "because my mother looked like them. This is what the mayor should be looking at, the faces of these children."
There were over a dozen young children present, and George lifted several of them up so that they could speak into the microphone. "We don’t want to stay home watching TV," said one of the bigger kids. "We want our after-school programs."
In Bushwick, Elaine Anderson from ACORN, one of the groups in BQ4E, explained the value of those programs. "It’s not just math or reading," she told the crowd in Spanish. "It’s also arts and sports, and of course individual tutoring, because many children can’t get help with their homework if their parents don’t speak English well."