Free summer programs in Elmont disappearing

Volunteer coach Fred Cange gets in on the

Volunteer coach Fred Cange gets in on the fun during a game of flag football at Elmont Road Park. (July 14, 2012) (Credit: Steven Sunshine)

In Elmont, where free summer youth programs for families on limited budgets have been a staple for decades, this season's shortage of affordable academic and recreational activities is approaching drought levels.

The local school system's summer programs for more than 1,000 students were completely canceled -- early casualties of the state's new cap limitation on property taxes and the district's failure to override its cap. Classes originally were scheduled to begin this month in subjects ranging from remedial reading to United Nations policymaking.

On top of that, the Gateway Youth Outreach Center, a local nonprofit agency, shut down its summer services for an additional 250 youngsters. The agency's move was forced by an impasse between elected Nassau County officials over how to fund youth programs.

"It hurts a lot of families," said Jon Johnson, president of the Elmont Cardinals, a volunteer youth sports league. The league is providing weekend flag football and other sports for about 300 youths over the summer, and community leaders point to it as Elmont's lone remaining program of this type.

Johnson, a coordinator of TV and film productions, rearranged his summer work schedule after Gateway canceled the summer program in which he had hoped to enroll his 10-year-old daughter. Instead, each morning Johnson is driving her to a church Bible camp in nearby Jamaica, Queens.

For many Elmont families, the abrupt cancellation of youth programs has meant more than a disruption of child-care schedules. It's also meant a loss of academic and cultural opportunities in one of Long Island's most diverse communities.

Elmont's population of 30,000 has more than 50 ethnicities and includes many recent arrivals from the Caribbean, Central America and South Asia. Half of the community's school-age children live near or below the poverty line.

Local school officials voiced deep regret over the elimination of free summer services, which included remedial English and math classes and enrichment programs such as science research and robotics engineering. Elmont is an elementary school district, but many of its advanced summer programs were coordinated with the surrounding Sewanhaka high school system.

But the officials said they had little choice. After Elmont's original budget was voted down May 15, the district cut nearly $1 million in expenses, including summer programs. The revised spending plan squeaked through on a second vote on June 19, getting just over the 60 percent majority that the state's new law requires for budgets that exceed a district's tax-cap limit.

"We feel terrible about this," said Albert Harper, the Elmont schools superintendent. "There are children on the streets, parents who have made last-minute changes in their schedules. And we won't know the full impact of this until testing next spring."

Elmont isn't the only school district where summer programs are being cut in the face of tax caps. The Mattituck-Cutchogue system in eastern Suffolk County eliminated a reading-assistance program that had been provided many summers in the past, at a savings of $15,000. The trim was part of the district's broader, successful effort to remain within cap limits and win voter approval of its budget. The reading program served about 40 students each summer in grades 1-4.

Jim McKenna, the district's superintendent, said the new caps are forcing districts to make hard choices about which services can be realistically sustained over many years and which cannot.

"At some point, you just have to draw the line," said McKenna, who is the new president of the Suffolk County Association of School Superintendents for 2012-13.Meanwhile, in Elmont, Gateway Center leaders expressed doubt that Nassau will settle its financial squabbling in time to save their youth program, originally scheduled to run through the end of July. County Executive Edward Mangano, a Republican, and the Nassau County Legislature's Democrats are locked in a dispute over funding and other issues.

Gateway's summer program, like the school district's, has run more than 20 years, and has provided both recreational and educational activities, including rocketry. Maximum fees have been $40 a week in the past and often have been waived for more than one-third of families due to modest incomes.

Pat Boyle, the center's executive director, said it's clear that traditional summer camps costing hundreds of dollars per week are not a practical alternative.

"Parents in Elmont just can't afford that," he said.

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