Budget reprieve lifts hopes for schools program

Budget reprieve lifts hopes for schools program

A tutor helps a student do homework in the NJ After 3 program run by JFS in Linden, now facing questions about funding. Photo courtesy JFS
A tutor helps a student do homework in the NJ After 3 program run by JFS in Linden, now facing questions about funding. Photo courtesy JFS

It has been something of a roller-coaster for Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey as they try to sustain the after-school program for inner-city children run by the agency in three Linden schools.

With a state budget that reduces funding for New Jersey After 3 — the statewide network within which JFS’ Linden effort functioned — JFS will support a scaled-back version of the program at a single school.

Earlier this year, Gov. Chris Christie’s budget wiped out funding for NJ After 3. It left hard-pressed parents with few alternatives as they scrambled to find safe afternoon care for their children, let alone the academic support the program also provided.

Last week, after intense lobbying by supporters of the program, $3 million in funding for the program was restored in the 2010-11 budget. That is $7 million less than last year’s allocation, but it still came as a welcome boost for the undertaking that in the last school year provided a safe haven for about 12,000 children around the state.

Jacob Toporek, executive director of the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations — a vocal lobbyist along with nonprofits working in 29 school districts — said the partial reprieve was thanks to combined advocacy efforts with the NJ Anti-Poverty Network and other groups.

Though few of the programs’ clients are Jewish, he said, NJ After 3 has been a great example of the kind of tikun olam — the mitzva of repairing the world — the Jewish community takes pride in doing.

However, in a conference call with its nonprofit program partners on July 16, NJ After 3 head Mark Valli spelled out the tough choices that lay ahead.

Toporek took part in that call. “It is a choice of either going deep in cuts or wide — that is, spread the cuts among everyone to maintain the network, or choose selected programs for deeper cuts,” said Toporek. “In the first, you may fund more programs, but the lower level of funding means loss of quality and credibility.

“If you choose deeper selected cuts, then NJ After 3 loses size and scale.”

Tom Beck, executive director of the Central JFS, also took part in the call. He told NJ Jewish News that — faced with the initial complete funding cut — his agency had sought alternative sources of money. It also came up with a scaled-down plan, still aiming to keep kids safe and busy after school with homework help, games, and other activities.

“We got a grant from United Way of Greater Union County and money from a foundation,” Beck said.

Instead of accommodating 274 children at three schools, as it did in 2009-10, the agency, with much belt-tightening, has worked out a way still to accommodate between 30 and 60 children at one school. Instead of paying a $250 registration fee, the parents would be asked to pay $800 for the year, still a nominal amount compared to their other options.

“We did a survey,” Beck explained. “The parents at School #4 were the ones most interested and willing to pay.”

If the agency gets a slice of the new funding — or even a proportionate cut, he said, they will be able to extend the program to one other school. “That would be wonderful,” Beck said.

NJ After 3 also asked all 29 school districts involved to describe what they are willing to bring to the table to support their after-school program — in matching funds, teachers’ services, snacks, etc.

The NJ After 3 board was scheduled to meet on Tuesday, July 20, and to announce its allocation decisions by the end of the week.

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