By Alex Ginsberg
Each summer, Vernetta Brown, executive director of the Queens Village Day School, fills as many as 30 assistant teaching positions through the city Department of Employment's Summer Youth Employment Program.
This year, however, with state and city budgets stretched thin, she may not be able to take on even half as many.
“This is devastating for the youth in our community, not only because they won't be offered employment but because they won't be introduced to a viable industry,” she said.
The Summer Youth Employment Program is a joint city-state-federal effort that finances 24-hour-a-week jobs for high school students at day care centers, parks and offices.
But the budget proposed by Gov. George Pataki this year contains no provision for funding the program, and the city has scaled down its contribution from the $15 million it pitched in last year to a mere $5.5 million, the Department of Employment said.
Boroughwide 3,020 teenagers were awarded jobs through the program last year, whereas only 606 are funded so far this year, the city agency said.
For Brown, that will mean hiring professional teaching assistants instead of giving high school students a valuable learning opportunity. But the Queens Village Day School is only one of scores of businesses and non-profits in southeastern Queens that will have to make do with less manpower given the shortage of funds the program is facing.
Sue Noreika, chairwoman of Community Board 13's youth committee, said that CB 13 had been allotted a total of 53 job slots this year by the Department of Employment, in contrast to last year's 250. The community board acts as an intermediary between the agency and the students by administering the program, accepting applications and supervising the work sites.
But Noreika cautioned against undue pessimism. Last year's program got off to a slow start, with DOE (which agency?) initially promising only about 50 slots to Community Board 13. By the time the summer rolled around, that number had ballooned to 250. She said it was possible – though not likely – that the same could happen over the next few months.
Richard Hellenbrecht, chairman of CB 13, which covers Glen Oaks, Bellerose, Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Queens Village, Cambria Heights, Laurelton, Rosedale and Brookville was not as hopeful.
“I don't think we're going to be so lucky this year,” he said. “We're not terribly optimistic that we'll get that huge hit.”
Both Hellenbrecht and Noreika agreed that any significant reduction in slots would adversely affect both the program and the community.
In addition to paying the students' salaries, the funds are used to hire supervisors to make sure students are not doing hazardous work or otherwise being mistreated. Noreika said without additional funding, CB 13 would be forced to rely on volunteer supervisors rather than paid professionals. The result would be a reduction in the quality of that oversight.
Nevertheless, the students who get jobs will be the lucky ones, she added.
“It puts kids on the street, and idle hands make mischief,” said Noreika, who worked summer jobs at 20 cents an hour through the National Youth Administration during the Depression. “It's so easy to get caught up in something negative, if there's nothing else to do.”
Although both the city and state budgets are still under negotiation – leaving the possibility that funding could be restored – public officials are not promising anything.
State Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans) said he would continue the struggle for funds in Albany.
“Clearly I'm going to fight for summer jobs,” he said. “Without summer jobs the kids have a very tough time.”
Smith also said he would try to hire two or three teens to work in his office this summer, a step that would “pick up some of the slack.”
And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responding to a question at a community breakfast Tuesday, agreed that the program was needed.
“It's very tough,” he said. “I think the summer programs are terribly valuable. The problem is we're not getting the state money.”
Scaling back the program would be a tragedy as far as Brown was concerned. She said she was so pleased with the summer employees the program had furnished in past years that she even hired one full time.
Tiffany Robinson, a Queens Village native, worked at the school as a summer youth employee between 1994 and 1997 before going on to Queensborough Community College and York College where she studied sociology and education.
“I learned how to come to work, how to be presentable, ways to dress, and how to be punctual – because that counts – and learned to love children,” she said.
“I think it's really terrible,” she said of the cutbacks, “because summer youth helped me get my start. It got me to want to be a teacher.”
Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.