June 1, 2017 10:10:37 AM
As one summer jobs program ends a 23-year run, another will continue in the Golden Triangle.
Normally, the day after Memorial Day signals the beginning of the summer jobs program for Columbus, but for this year at least, the city will not be offering the program, which had provided eight weeks of work and skills training to as many as 25 high school and college students each summer.
Travis Jones, federal programs director for the city, has served as coordinator for the program for 22 of the program's 23 years. He said not having a program this year is a blow to both the city and the youth.
"I think everybody is really disappointed," Jones said. "And not just the kids. I think everybody in the city really felt like this was something really good that we could offer to these kids."
The decision to cancel this year's jobs program came in early April, when the Mississippi Department of Transportation notified the city it could no longer provide the grant money that supported the program due to budget cuts implemented by Gov. Phil Bryant.
The Columbus program provided full-time work for 20 to 25 students for eight weeks and was funded by $20,000 from the city along with a $35,000 MDOT grant.
"Once we were informed by MDOT that the grant would be available, the decision was made not to go forward with the program," said David Armstrong, chief operations officer for the city. "We really didn't discuss if there might be a way to fund the program without the grant. So the program is up in the air. We're probably going to wait until we see what the MDOT budget looks like for next year before we discuss other options."
The program, open to students age 16 to 24, provided jobs primarily in the city's public works department, but last year the students were also used to canvass neighborhoods to conduct surveys.
"It wasn't just the money, which we know is important to the kids. It was also an opportunity learn other skills, interviewing, writing a resume, a lot of things that they might never have been exposed to," Armstrong said. "The decision not to have the program was absolutely a matter of funding. That was the only factor."
In Starkville, the city will fund its program without grant money for the first time, although it will be a scaled-down version.
"The city is trying to employ approximately 15 youth for the summer and each department is locating something else they may can cut back on, along with the $10,000 the city budgeted as a match to the grant, to pay these youth for eight weeks part-time," said City Clerk Lesa Hardin."
Starkville's program will provided teens 20 hours of work at $7.50 per hour.
"The response has really been amazing," said Navarrete Ashford, the city personnel officer who will supervise the program. "We have more than 200 applications for these jobs, so the interest in there."
Ashford said the students will work for a variety of city departments.
"Some of them will work in the parks, some in our court system and other departments, mainly helping with clerical work," he said. "As soon as the board (of aldermen) meets to officially approve the program at its next meeting (Tuesday), we'll get started the next day. I think everyone is really excited to get started and see how it works. Hopefully, we can grow the program in the future. There is certainly enough interest to support that. It's a matter of funding."
Meanwhile in Columbus, Jones is hoping this summer is merely an interruption rather than an end to the program.
"One thing that has been consistent is that there is a lot of interest in these jobs," Jones said. "Kids want to work, and we certainly hope that next year we're able to have the program."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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