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Say Yes Cleveland family support specialist program gets $4.5 million from state budget

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
The end goal of the family support specialists is to help students and their families get to a place of stability.

Say Yes Cleveland’s family support specialist program received $4.5 million in the state’s new biennial budget signed by Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in early July.

This will mean those staff will be funded for at least the first half of the current fiscal year, which began in July. The program puts a social worker in every Cleveland Metropolitan School District building and in partnering charter schools.

Say Yes Cleveland is a nonprofit formed by a coalition of city, school and other local partners to provide free college scholarships to all CMSD students who live in the school district. The end goal of the family support specialists is to help students and their families get to a place of stability, so they can eventually take advantage of free college tuition provided by Say Yes donors.

The program had faced an uncertain financial future after Cuyahoga County Council cut its funding in half last year, once council realized the county was not being reimbursed with federal funds. However, additional support from the county and city of Cleveland's federal pandemic relief funds, plus from the school district, helped Say Yes bridge that funding gap.

Say Yes spokesperson Jon Benedict says the money in the state budget, plus support from the school district, charter schools that partner with CMSD and potential funding from others (despite the cut last year, Cuyahoga County has still provided a significant amount of funding each year since Say Yes started) should be enough to keep the program going through the rest of the school year, and fiscal year.

In the meantime, Say Yes is still working toward a more sustainable funding model - potentially by lobbying the state to allow use of federal IV-E funds, meant for foster youth services. Say Yes' contention has been that the family support specialists help keep students out of the foster youth system.

"The idea is and has been to get in place a long term sustainable funding model, as was envisioned prior to the launch of Say Yes, so that it is not a year by year issue," Benedict said.

County spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan said the county government has just started drafting its budget for the next two years, so there's no word yet on what level the county will support Say Yes this year.

Benedict thanked the state government for what he called "one-time" funding to bridge any gap it might face this year. The Ohio House had initially proposed $4.5 million in funding for the program for this fiscal year and next fiscal year in its version of the state's budget, while the Senate had taken that money out of its version completely.

Benedict said the uncertainty facing the family support specialist program had meant 10 of those 105 staff had quit to find other jobs, but he said Say Yes is currently working to fill those positions before the start of the school year.

The George Gund Foundation also announced Wednesday that it was providing $1.5 million to support Say Yes programmingover the next three years, meant to fund coaching and advising for Say Yes scholarship recipients once they reach college, among other services.

Corrected: July 20, 2023 at 1:33 PM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly reported funding for Say Yes was pending from the county. Although the county has previously funded the Say Yes program each year since the program's inception, the county has not yet drafted its next budget.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.