A GIANT Step Backwards for Youth
After 2 ½ years of intensive work by child advocates, youth service providers and County staff, the most recent round of County funding for youth programs is nearly as flawed as it was 3 years ago. This is truly heart breaking for those of us who put in months of work with the aim of making the allocation of almost $2 million a year more transparent, more accountable and more effective in providing positive youth development programs for our young people.
In 1993, the Campaign for Kids coalition, led by the Westchester Children’s Association (WCA), successfully advocated for the County to use some of its own tax levy to support community-based youth programs — after school activities, academic support, career exploration, arts, etc. — that help young people thrive. Since 1994, Westchester County’s budget has included the Invest-in-Kids Fund administered by the County Youth Bureau and allocated through a competitive application process every 3 years.
The last time Westchester County allocated grants for community youth programs in 2014, the process was a disaster. The selection process lacked both transparency and clear rationale, and moreover was delayed into 2015, while programs were supposed to be up and running by January 1 . In response, the Campaign for Kids called on the Astorino administration to partner with youth program providers to drastically overhaul the way funds were distributed. The two major recommendations were to make the process more transparent and to make sure funding announcements were made in a timely manner to allow programs to effectively plan their operations. To its credit, the administration agreed and asked WCA to lead a collaborative effort toward this end.
Plagued by the Same Problems
Unfortunately, after more than 2 years of work, we are again disappointed. Some improvements were made in the application itself and we were able to engage a broad panel of about 2 dozen reviewers to read and rate the applications. However, the current round of funding is plagued by the same problems as the last: lack of timely decision making and an ultimately opaque decision making process. Award announcements were finally made on December 15, just about 2 weeks before the projected start date for new contracts. New programs must gear up for a January 1 start, and existing programs that did not receive an award must wind down, which may mean dismissing staff and alerting families that the program their child attends will not re-open following the school vacation.
Now that decisions have finally been announced, they do not follow the recommendations made by reviewers, nor in some cases do they reflect the priority programming that this funding is designed to support. Some programs have been selected for funding despite the fact that they charge their participants fees, a practice specifically prohibited under the terms of this funding. Some programs that have been providing excellent services to young people for 20 years have been summarily de-funded with no explanation or rationale, the same pattern that was evident in the last round of funding in 2014. And the actual rating scores given to programs seems to have been given little consideration: the program that received the lowest overall score among all the applicants was awarded the maximum amount of $45,000 per year.
And the Good News Is?
We are frustrated that the many months of work by County staff, nonprofits, and advocates have produced a result that falls far short of our hopes. The good news is that we have raised expectations about how funding decisions can and should be made. Hopefully, we can pick up this work in the new year under the new Administration and move closer to our vision of effective, clear, responsive, and transparent youth funding.