The Park District’s after-school program in Lincoln Park is so popular that parents wait in line overnight to reserve spots for their children. Yet in August the Park District cut the number of kids it would take by a third. “Where are our tax dollars going if they can’t keep an after-school program open?” asks Gaylon Topps Alcaraz, whose 11-year-old daughter is now on the waiting list for the program. “What are working parents supposed to do?”

The cut illustrates a trend in Park District policy. For the past ten years the district has been moving away from the old-fashioned social-service model of providing free or low-cost programs such as after-school day care. Instead, under Mayor Daley’s leadership, it has spent millions of dollars on beautification and construction projects. As a result, many parks have never looked better. There are new trees, potted plants, wrought-iron fences, flower beds, batting cages, skateboard ramps, swimming pools, and field houses.

But having borrowed lots of money to pay for these improvements, the Park District has less money for programs. “It’s like having a nice building for a library,” says Stefan Morgan, a west-side resident, “but no money for books.”

According to a budget analysis by Friends of the Parks, a watchdog group, the Park District has a budget of $351 million a year, $87 million of which goes to pay off loans–up from $60 million in 2002. Not wanting to raise taxes significantly to fill the gap, it has cut programs and cut staff at almost every park in the city over the past two years. The arts and crafts program at Warren Park has been cut, as have the music and theater program at Indian Boundary Park, the wood-shop program at Calumet Park, the senior center at Abbott Park, and the arts and crafts program at Hamlin Park. Staff cuts have led Welles Park to end open hours at the indoor basketball court. Staff cuts at Union Park have meant the basketball and tennis courts and the game room are usually locked, and the outdoor swimming pool has limited hours.

“Why have a park if it’s off-limits to the community? It’s bizarre,” says Morgan. “I understand you have to have a staff to run a park. So hire the staff, offer some programs.”

Like many lifelong Chicago residents, Morgan recalls that in the 70s the parks were filled with supervisors who ran programs for children and adults in, among other things, basketball, floor hockey, and art. Alcaraz recites the clever slogans the Park District has coined to encourage people to use the parks. “There’s ‘Come Out and Play,'” she says. “There was ‘When School’s Out the Parks Are In.’ That one is particularly ironic in view of what happened at Lincoln Park.”

Maybe the Park District figures that in gentrifying communities like the one around Union Park it doesn’t need to spend tax dollars to subsidize programs because so many residents can pay for private health clubs and after-school programs. But Morgan says, “A lot of people in this city can’t afford to join private clubs. They still look to the parks. You have to remember there are still working people and poor people in Chicago.”

The Park District has never acknowledged that its beautification agenda comes at the cost of recreation programs. It usually acts as though it’s not making any cuts at all–and often rescinds them as soon as local residents complain. “They always say something like, ‘Oh, we weren’t really closing it–it just took time to hire the staff,'” says Karl Brinson, a member of a west-side community group that monitors local parks. “It’s a shell game. If you complain about a vacancy in your park, they’ll slide someone over from another park–causing a vacancy there.”

The Lincoln Park after-school program opens each school day at 3 PM and closes at 6 PM. “It’s great for working parents,” says Pamela Willis, who has two sons. “I don’t know what else we would do without it.”

“There’s a reason parents line up to get in–it’s very good,” says Alcaraz. “I love the staff. They’re very child friendly.”

Willis says she arrived at 5:30 PM on Friday, August 13, to register for this year’s program. “Officially sign-up didn’t begin until Saturday,” she says. “But there’s always a line, so I wasn’t messing around. I camped out in a tent. There were about 20 people ahead of me. I didn’t think it was a problem.”

But at 9 AM on Saturday a Park District staffer told her that she and the parents behind her in line–including Alcaraz, who’d been there since 5:30 AM–were too late. “I couldn’t believe it,” says Willis. “It didn’t seem like there were so many people ahead of me in line. Had the program suddenly become so popular?”

No. The program once had three counselors, and now it had only two. Instead of taking 60 children, it could take only 40. Alcaraz’s daughter and Willis’s sons went on a waiting list. “I got upset, and I started calling downtown,” says Alcaraz. “I wrote a letter to Mayor Daley.”

Park District officials say recreation leaders make $9.67 an hour, get no health benefits, and work no more than 30 hours a week, so each one costs the system about $12,000 a year. Parents pay $420 for the Lincoln Park after-school program. By cutting one staffer the Park District loses $8,400 in tuition but saves a $12,000 salary–leaving $3,600 to spend on something else.

“Where are their priorities?” says Alcaraz. “I’m a single mom with two jobs.”

Other parents also called and wrote letters to officials. “On Monday [August 23] I got a call from Park District superintendent Tim Mitchell–he called me back,” says Alcaraz. “I let him know I was upset. He said he understood where I was coming from, but the after-school program wasn’t making much money for them. My whole thing is, that’s not our problem. The parks aren’t supposed to be about making money–we’re already subsidizing them with tax dollars.”

Soon Park District officials were saying there’d been a terrible misunderstanding. They’d never intended to permanently shrink the Lincoln Park program. They’d only meant to temporarily limit enrollment while they scrambled to hire a new recreation leader to replace the one who’d left in June. “We can’t have more than 20 children per rec leader,” says Michele Jones, a Park District spokeswoman. “Since we only had two rec leaders, we had to limit enrollment to 40 children. All the other children went on a waiting list.”

Jones says the district hopes to hire a new rec leader by the start of the school year. “Once we hire that person,” she says, “we’ll be able to take 20 children from the waiting list.”

Why has it taken so long to replace the old rec leader?

“If you think about it, the hiring process takes time,” she says. “You have to post it, do interviews, run background checks, fingerprinting.”

“You mean to tell me it takes all summer to fill one vacancy? Come on,” says Alcaraz. “They probably have a backlog of previous employees who would apply for this slot–people they’ve already fingerprinted and whatever. I think they fully intended to cut that position, but we embarrassed them. It’s the same old story. They’re trying to do things on the sly. They don’t want to admit they’re making cuts even though they’re making them all the time.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.