York City mayor plans to use neighborhood schools for community programs

Margie Orr, who is president of the City of York School District, speaks as organizers hold a press conference to introduce 10,000 Acts of Kindness, a year-long collaborative effort to spread kindness and goodwill, outside of the York County Administrative Center in York City, Friday, June 29, 2018. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Mayor Michael Helfrich greets the audience following his Inauguration, Tuesday Jan. 2, 2018. John A. Pavoncello photo

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich has a vision to bring community resources right to the people — in their own neighborhoods.

At a school board planning meeting Monday, Aug. 6, Helfrich presented his plans to utilize school gyms and a few classrooms for children's activities and job and life skills training for parents or guardians.

Discussion with the district's administration started in April, he said.

If all goes as planned, the programs should start as soon as Helfrich finds coordinators to oversee them.

The plan did not require a board vote because it falls under a "permit 3," said Superintendent Eric Holmes, which means school buildings are approved for community use as long as the district does not pay any money.

The York City School District will not pay a dime, the mayor assured the board, and the city will also be responsible for running its programs — offered free to residents.

The idea is that kids will be somewhere safe while parents have the opportunity to improve themselves when they ordinarily wouldn't have the time or means, Helfrich said.

"I just heard over and over again, 'I need to know that kids are somewhere safe,'" he said.

A little more than three years ago, he explained, more than 400 city residents requested children's activities and adult classes as top priorities for improving their communities — especially if they were available in their own neighborhoods.

More:City Council approves $3 million grant application to improve select neighborhoods

Helfrich's plan focuses on 16 neighborhoods, offering a variety of services including prenatal care, mental health resources, hot meals and bingo.

He said the city's schools will be part of a larger initiative to involve community groups, churches, volunteers and businesses in working together and getting more resources into these neighborhoods.

Helfrich wasn't initially thinking of bringing schools into the mix, but when the district was in danger of losing its after-school program (now covered by increased funding because of the closure of Helen Thackston Charter School), it became a way to ensure gyms were open for kids.

More:York City schools prepare for influx of Thackston students

"We take a backseat to all the other activities," he added, noting that the city will work around the schedules of the school district and its partners.

Cost to the city: Nonprofit staff members, retiree volunteers and city employees will be coordinating the programs at no cost, and the city will fill in gaps with paid part-time positions, Helfrich said.

To fund the programs, the city has applied for a few grants, he said, and he intends to move toward using Community Development Block Grant money for these kinds of community projects.

It will cost less than $200,000 for one year, according to the mayor.

Board concerns: Board members Michael Breeland and Tonya Thompson-Morgan were concerned the programs might be duplicating services available elsewhere in the city.

Thompson-Morgan said she wants what's best for the city, but efforts should be targeted. She suggested parents and teachers volunteer to transport kids across town to services. 

Member Tanoue Sweeney reminded the board that these services offered by the city will be free, unlike many others that some people can't afford.

Kaitlyn Gladfelter, 4, left, Aaron Geeting, 11, and Cecelia Geeting, 10, all of York, paint their own step stool at Central Market, Saturday, July 21, 2018. Sponsored by Joie Henney  of Henny Woodworking, children are able to create their own step stool, modeled after a 1704 five-board bench, for free each weekend this month at Central Market. John A. Pavoncello photo

"I'm not putting my 7-year old child on a bus at night to go across town when there's a school right around the corner from me where he could go and do the same activity," she said.

Helfrich said he does plan to utilize services that are already available, such as the women's pregnancy center and Planned Parenthood, but the idea is to bring these services to the people where they live.

More:York City Coffee Spot to offer services to homeless

In the west end of the city, he said, more than 45 percent of residents don't have vehicles, and though some might have no problem going across town, others don't leave their houses.

Considering the issues facing the city, he added, there's a broader mission of simply being present in neighborhoods to build community and trust.

When asked if the city was utilizing its own community centers, he said many of them are now shut down because federal CDBG funds were cut from $5 million to $1.2 million.

Rehabbing 100-year-old to 120-year-old buildings such as the shuttered Princess Street and Pine Street centers would be "the most expensive way" to offer services, he said.

One board member was excited by the prospect of more services in his neighborhood.

"I really want bingo in the east end," James Sawor said.

Helfrich clarified that programs will not be locked in — if it's determined no one is using them, they will discontinued.