Youth employment program faces budget hardships

Champaign Unit 4 School District’s summer employment program received direction from the Champaign City Council to find alternatives to fund the program during Tuesday’s council meeting. The council vote implies that the council wants the Summer Youth Employment Program to continue, despite a city budget that may not be able to support the program for a second year.

Private and corporate sponsorships could be foreseeable, along with city funding.

The Summer Youth Employment Program provided summer employment opportunities for Champaign students ages 14 to 18 during a seven-week period from June 13 to July 29. A total of 161 students from underrepresented sections of the community participated in the program; One hundred forty six students successfully completed the program.

Suzanne Meislahn, a spokesman for the program, detailed the program’s successes at Tuesday’s meeting. She said employer and student opinion of the employment program was generally positive. Most students were willing to accept the basics of the program and demonstrated high attendance rates and good behavior. She said these students proved that these teenagers would be great leaders in the future.

However, the big problem with the program is its cost. The Summer Youth Employment Program in 2011 cost $173,352, which was below the city’s budget for the program. The remaining balance will be used for future funding.

Champaign’s budget may not be able to support another year of the program. Michael LaDue, District 2, said last year the city had to tap into funds for another project and doubts they could postpone that project even more.

Councilwoman at-large Deborah Feinen said she would love to continue the program and all its success but doesn’t know if it’s possible. She added that additional sponsors may be necessary to keep the program afloat.

“It’s a great program,” Feinen said. “I’m glad you did it, and I hope you do great things with the businessmen and women who you are going to talk to. I hope you find big corporate sponsors who think this is a great thing for our community. But I think it has to be a partnership.”

Some students spoke out in favor of the program during the comments section of the meeting. The majority of opinions expressed that the employment helped them stay out of trouble, gain interest in possible career fields and learn job and money management skills.

Employers also offered their opinions on the program. One of the employers said he was proud of how the city helped the youth find jobs and hopes they do so again. He said that instead of causing trouble in the streets, the youth can go out to work and use their energy in a positive way.

As a teacher, councilwoman at-large Karen Foster said she viewed the program as a very valuable asset for the students’ progression into adulthood and the workforce.

“I think we owe it to this program to explore options before we shut it down,” Foster said.

She said corporate and local partnerships are viable options and, if needed, she would ask around to find other methods to fund the program. She added that this program needs to be planned for the long term and not on a year-by-year basis.