A Toledo-based after-school program got a prized spot in the Ohio Senate’s recently passed budget: Its own earmark. The state senators who obtained the line-item funding say their involvement is because of the merits of the program, and not favoritism.
Tucked in the massive Senate budget bill is a line item for Kids Unlimited, providing the program $70,000 in each of the next two years for after-school work at two Lucas County schools. The earmark is from state Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), who said he’s worked for years with state Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) to direct state support toward Kids Unlimited.
“We both believe it’s a special program that really can help schoolchildren,” Mr. Gardner said.
The funds would come from Gov. John Kasich’s proposed “Straight A Fund,” a pot of $250 million for one-time competitive grants for efforts for educational reforms or operational efficiencies.
Kids Unlimited runs after-school and summer-school tutoring and enrichment at Northpointe Academy, Rosary Cathedral, Martin Luther King, Jr., Academy for Boys, and Kids Unlimited Academy. It’s one of more than two dozen nonprofits that provide before or after-school programming at TPS buildings, according to the district. Only Kids Unlimited received an earmark. In fact, the Toledo program is one of only a few nongovernmental entities specifically targeted for funding in the Senate budget proposal.
So does that mean Kids Unlimited deserves state funding more than the myriad other after-school programs in the region and across the state?
“I am not saying they are more deserving,” Ms. Brown said. “It just so happens they are the only after-school program that’s approached me.”
For a small after-school nonprofit, Kids Unlimited boasts a board of directors full of prominent local politicians and businessmen.
Board members include Mark Wagoner, the former Ohio Senate minority whip; Rich Iott, a businessman who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur in 2010; Mike Anderson, chief executive officer of The Andersons Inc., who serves as “director emeritus”; Lisa Gathard, a co-founder of Kids Unlimited, whose husband is Owens Corning’s chairman and CEO, Mike Thaman; Arthur Hills, a noted Toledo-based golf course designer; and other prominent community members.
But both Mr. Gardner and Ms. Brown said the earmark was not a case of those with influence garnering favor from government. They said they were introduced to the program by its president, Chris Amato, not by board members. And both legislators said they decided to push for funding because they were impressed with results touted by Mr. Amato, including test scores of participants that were better than other students at those schools.
“I think what they are seeing is we are providing measurable outcomes,” Mr. Amato said. “We can show the children are getting better grades, [have improved’ conduct.”
This wasn’t the first time Ms. Brown tried to direct money to Kids Unlimited. In 2009, the then-state representative had secured funding for the group, only to have the earmark scraped out during the legislative process.
She stressed she supported the program because it works after school, and in both TPS and charter schools. “I am not a supporter of charter schools,” Ms. Brown said. “I want that to be absolutely clear. This is an after-school program.”
But Kids Unlimited opened a charter school last year. Mr. Amato said they are separate entities, with different boards and sources of funding. But the after-school program does operate at the charter school, Ms. Gathard is on school’s board, they share names and symbols, and when the school was opening, Mr. Amato was listed as a contact.
Ms. Brown said she was unaware of the charter school, Kids Unlimited Academy, 3891 Martha Ave.
The Senate passed its budget Thursday. Kids Unlimited’s earmark will have to survive a conference committee with the House, and Mr. Kasich’s line-item veto.