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Cuyahoga County Council member says county was 'misled' on Say Yes funding

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Say Yes Family Support Specialist Lamont Davis greets first grader Deointa Campbell at the start of the school day inside Bolton Elementary School in Cleveland on Aug. 30, 2022.

A Cuyahoga County Council member said on Thursday that proponents of the Say Yes college scholarship program “overpromised” and “underdelivered” when asking the county to contribute funding for wraparound services in Cleveland.

The result, said Council member Sunny Simon, was that the county ended up covering much more of the cost than intended for the family support specialist program for Say Yes Cleveland. That ended last year when council voted to cut funding.

Simon, in response to a column in The Plain Dealer criticizing the county's funding cut, argued that former County Executive Armond Budish's administration and the leadership of the now-defunct national Say Yes program presented “grossly misleading financial projections” to County Council when the Say Yes family support specialist program was presented to it in 2019.

The program puts a social worker in every Cleveland Metropolitan School District building in an effort to connect struggling students and families with resources in the community.

As Ideastream Public Media has previously reported, Simon led the charge last year tocut funding for the program after realizing the county had not been reimbursed with federal Title IV-E funds, typically meant to fund foster-care programs. Without that reimbursement, the county had to use money from its Health and Human Services levy.

County Council voted in October to reduce its funding for the program from $9.25 million to $4.9 million, leading to a shortfall. Some, but not all, of the resulting gap has been covered with portions of the American Rescue Plan Act money allotted to the county and the city of Cleveland.

Plain Dealer Columnist Leila Atassi wrote that the county should be stepping back in to fill the gap it created with last year's cut.

“Tell them that HHS levy dollars can and should be used to support this life-changing program in Cuyahoga County’s urban core, one of the poorest cities in America,” she wrote. “Tell them you see the hypocrisy of squandering millions of ARPA dollars on a golf course clubhouse in Parma, on dog parks, on the Cleveland Air Show and countless other frivolities, while claiming to have already done too much for kids in Cleveland.”

In an “open letter” issued to news media and others Thursday in response to the column, Simon wrote that the county has stepped up. She said the county was never meant to be the major contributor to the funding of the program.

Simon said in a phone call that former County Executive Armond Budish’s administration, along with the national Say Yes program, presented “misleading” projections suggesting that federal IV-E funds would reimburse the county for much of its share, leaving the county to cover only about $3.6 million over four years.

The Title IV-E funds, though, only covered $110,000 — not the many millions expected — over the life of the program.

“This is the hard truth: Those who sold Say Yes Cleveland overpromised and under-delivered, and they are now refusing to make the difficult decisions needed to ensure the program's long-term viability,” she wrote in her open letter. “If public and private stakeholders truly believe Say Yes Cleveland is worth saving, it is time for them to also say ‘yes’ by putting their money where their mouth is, and match the more-than-generous investment made by county taxpayers.”

Cleveland City Council approved $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding to help bridge the roughly $4.3 million gap, and Cuyahoga County Council also approved $1 million of its own ARPA funds.

But some Cleveland City Council members sought accountability on how the funds are being spent, and questioned whether the program is financially viable in the long-term. Simon has asked why the city has only contributed $600,000 to the program so far, outside of a $2 million initial contributed to provide Say Yes scholarships.

Dianne Downing, Say Yes Cleveland's executive director, said Say Yes and other local partners are working to lobby the state government to again allow Title IV-E funding to be used as the program’s main source of funding. But she has not publicly suggested any other methods that could keep the program’s $9 million-plus budget stable long term.

Say Yes Cleveland spokesperson Jon Benedict noted that the funding strategy for the family support specialist program was decided before Say Yes Cleveland was launched.

“It has been four years since Say Yes Cleveland was launched, and it was several more years before that since planning for the organization was started by our convening partners,” he said. “While some adjustments have been made along the way, the rollout, impact and promise of the program have been executed as envisioned all those years ago.”

Downing has said that during the first half of the current school 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.

Simon said if the county were to continue funding Say Yes as it had been, it would have to dip into health and human services levy fund reserves.

“Doing so would have devastated the county’s long-term safety net reserves, required drastic cuts to existing critical health and human services, or led to an increase in taxes,” she said. “If we had agreed to draw down our HHS reserves to fund Say Yes at current levels, the county’s HHS levy would be depleted in roughly five years.”

The HHS levy brings in $278 million per year, according to information provided by the county Friday.

Simon wrote that the county is prepared to commit another $600,000 toward addressing the funding gap, and that County Executive Chris Ronayne “appears committed to finding a long-term funding strategy for Say Yes.”

That would leave $2.1 million remaining to be covered for the fiscal year ending this summer, though it’s not clear what would happen in the new fiscal year.

Benedict said Say Yes is grateful for the support.

“Thanks to the commitment of these public partners, we are very close to filling that gap,” Benedict said. “Our priority now is to secure funds to fill our current shortfall, and to finalize a stable, long-term funding solution for our Family Support Specialists, and we deeply appreciate our partners’ willingness to work with us to make that happen.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.