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Workforce, education initiatives face hard questions from Cleveland Council members

 Cleveland City Council's January 24 workforce, education, training and youth development meeting.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland City Council's January 24 workforce, education, training and youth development meeting.

Two requests for use of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act dollars on education and workforce development initiatives made it out of a Cleveland City Council committee meeting Tuesday, but not until after facing some tough questions from council members.

Specifically, council members spent hours questioning the organizers behind a proposed first-of-its-kind $10 million initiative to build up the city’s workforce to work on infrastructure and construction projects. They also questioned the executive director of Say Yes Cleveland on a request for $600,000 in funding to bridge a funding gap that program is experiencing.

On the workforce front, council members had hard questions about how the initiative would be different from efforts already underway and about how exactly the initiative would recruit, train and involve Black residents who historically have been excluded from such opportunities.

On the Say Yes front, council members voiced support for the Say Yes family support specialists that the request would fund but worried about the program’s long-term financial viability, and wanted more metrics on how the program aids struggling students and families.

Built Environment Workforce Development request

A $10 million initiative would seed a new series of partnerships between a number of organizations on the workforce development front in Cleveland, in an attempt to create a new pipeline for workers on: residential and commercial construction, infrastructure and transit, green infrastructure, broadband, and lead and brownfield remediation.

Partners at the table, who would be involved in getting this new pipeline going, include Michelle Rose of Ohio Means Jobs Cleveland-Cuyahoga County, Marsha Mockabee with the Urban League of Greater Cleveland, Craig Dorn of Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Glen Shumate of the Construction Employers Association and Chris Nance with the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

Shumate said the collaborative effort is needed because many of these industries are currently having a hard time finding skilled laborers to fill empty positions - well-paying positions which could help out a lot of Clevelanders struggling to make ends meet. And the group estimates $20 to $30 billion in investments coming to the city in sewer, road, bridge and other infrastructure projects over the next decade.

The $10 million would be broken down in the following way:

  • Capacity building for “training at scale,” $5 million, with $2 million of that portion going to expanding construction apprenticeships and other programs to increase construction jobs, including among people of color.
  • Trainee/worker supports, including coaching, $1 million.
  • Minority contractor and business development, $1 million.
  • Outreach and marketing, using “different methods and new messages,” $1.2 million.
  • Specific set-aside for building a worker pipeline for young people, $1.5 million.
  • Coordinator and operational budget management (data collection) $300,000.

The end goal of the initiative would be to have 3,000 workers enrolled with training providers in four years, with 75% of those enrollees being BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or People of Color) or women and an increase in the number of subcontractor businesses that are minority owned.
Council member Stephanie Howse requested the 75% requirement to be “disaggregated” to specifically list which people are being enrolled, arguing that Black Americans have historically been excluded from such opportunities at a disproportionate rate. She noted even recently, Black business owners struggled to access small business loans during the pandemic.

“It is easy to hide what’s not being done by putting everybody together,” she said. “’We’re going to put the women in there, we’re going to put the African-Americans in there, we’re going to put the Hispanics in there.' And again, while they are all different disadvantages historically, not like Black people.”

Council member Richard Starr also raised concerns about how specifically the project would achieve its goals, considering it involves many of the same partners who have for years tried to increase job opportunities, apprenticeships and growing business capacity for people of color. Starr had expressed frustration earlier in the meeting with nonprofits seeking Council funding and not reporting back with any results while material conditions in his neighborhood don’t change.

We all want to see this happen, but we don't want to sit here and say we still have the same unemployment problem, we still have the same different organizations getting contracts, but they're not delivering because they're coming back for more money,” Starr said. “And we're still doing the same thing over and over.

Marsha Mockabee with the Urban League said she heard that concern and said the group is committed would provide a further breakdown of how the project would work when the proposal is next heard at council’s finance committee.

She added that the collaborative nature of the proposal is copying other approaches that have been taken in the community for I.T., healthcare and advanced manufacturing, where partnerships are developed between organizations in those sectors to help expand those workforces.

Shumate agreed that the partnerships are what set the proposal apart.

“There is a great need in this ecosystem that doesn’t exist right now,” he said. “It’s very fragmented. …I don't want to say the unions by themselves and everybody else by themselves and the engineers by themselves and designers by themselves. There is no connectivity. This may be one of the first times that I hope that there can be a collaboration that is, in a significant way, that could be substantial over a period of time, not a one-time, one-year scenario.”

Say Yes Cleveland

Earlier in the meeting, Diane Downing, executive director of Say Yes Cleveland, and Holly Trifiro, chief education officer for the city of Cleveland, told the committee that the $600,000 request before city council would help the organization address part of a funding gap for its roughly $9.3 million per-year family support specialist program.

That’s a program – part of a broader universal college scholarship initiative - that provides wrap-around services to CMSD and partnering charter school children and their families, to help them through problems like hunger, homelessness, and mental and physical health struggles.

The current funding gap – about $3.5 million - was caused when Cuyahoga County cut its funding for the program significantly when it realized that federal Title IV-E funds (typically meant to prevent children from going into foster care) could not be used to compensate the county for its funding of the program. The $600,000 from the city will only cover about three weeks of salaries for the support specialists.

Council members Starr and Joe Jones questioned why the school district isn’t stepping in to bridge the funding gap.

I think the district should be moving towards adding that into their budget… It shouldn't be a point that we have to go fundraise,” Starr said.

Trifiro noted the district and charter schools that use the family support specialist services pay about a third of the costs of the program already, although she said the district is willing to consider helping to plug the rest of the gap.

Downing was also asked about long-term sustainability of the program, and she said Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and Say Yes have been working at the state level with the governor’s office and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to again be able to utilize IV-E funds to reimburse the county for the program.

Other than that, though, Downing did not mention other sources of revenue that could be brought to bear to create a longer-term funding source for the program. Starr also asked Downing and Trifiro for data on how the support specialists are helping students and families overcome challenges.

Downing said during the first half of the year, support specialists made about 7,500 referrals to services for students and families, while in 2021-2022, the specialists made 50,000 “case notes” referring to contact made with students and family members.

County Council Education Committee Chair Sunny Simon had called out the city of Cleveland for not helping fund the support specialist program; Trifiro had told committee members Tuesday that the city had given $2 million to the scholarship fund initially, but has not provided any new funds since.

Council President Blaine Griffin also stopped into the meeting and suggested the city explore ways in which the city can be the pass-through for the federal IV-E funds, rather than the county.

"I don't ever want to be in a position again where we're relying on another governmental entity to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on whether or not we're going to make sure that our children in the city of Cleveland go to college," Griffin said.

The committee ultimately voted to move the ordinance forward to the finance committee, but with a caveat that Say Yes report back regularly with more data on the ways the support specialists are helping students and on how the search for additional funding is going.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.