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Cuyahoga County Council reduces funding for Say Yes Cleveland family support specialists

Lamont Davis, family support specialist for Say Yes Cleveland, greets first grader Deointa Campbell with a fist bump at the start of the school day inside Bolton Elementary School in Cleveland on Aug. 30, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Lamont Davis, family support specialist for Say Yes Cleveland, greets first grader Deointa Campbell at the start of the school day inside Bolton Elementary School in Cleveland on Aug. 30, 2022.

Cuyahoga County Council voted Tuesday evening to appropriate $4.9 million to fund family support specialists for the Say Yes Cleveland program, cutting almost in half what the county had initially budgeted to pay for the program, now in its fourth year.

Family support specialists provide wrap-around services to families and students at Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools and partner charter schools, helping them find assistance on a variety of issues, from hunger to homelessness to mental health services. The goal is to remove barriers to students' academic success. The Say Yes Program more broadly provides college scholarships to basically all CMSD students who attend four years of high school and live in the district.

County Council had initially considered a $9.256 million total appropriation to fund the program for this academic year.

Say Yes Cleveland Executive Director Diane Downing said the new $4.5 million gap in funding “must be addressed” in order for the family support specialist program to continue through the end of the school year.

"We will work diligently with our community partners to identify other funding sources to fill the gap," she said in a statement Tuesday.

Downing had said during a meeting of County Council’s education, environment and sustainability committee last week that the reduced funding would mean the program would likely only be able to continue through March.

The $4.9 million appropriation includes $3.3 million from CMSD and $1.6 million from the county, Say Yes Cleveland spokesperson Jon Benedict said Tuesday. In the last school year before the program was expanded to every school, the county provided $3.9 million and the school district had provided $2.1 million to fund the support specialist program.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon had announced earlier this year that the school district now had a support specialist in every school building, highlighting it as a major achievement for the district, its partners and the Say Yes Program.

Sunny Simon, chair of the education, environment and sustainability committee, said during a committee meeting last week that the county had been operating under the idea that it could, and had been using, Title IV-E funds – typically meant for youth in foster care – to supplement half of the program’s costs. But that was not the case. Hence why the initially budgeted appropriation this year was cut significantly.

“That was wrong information,” she said. “There was never any basis to substantiate IV-E funding for a purpose other than the foster care connection that was discussed, so unfortunately that’s where we’re landing.”

David Merriman, director of Cuyahoga County’s Department of Health and Human Services, said the program’s funding is limited to children who are in foster care or are a candidate for foster care.

“There are very few children that are in the Say Yes program that are in foster care at this time,” he said. “It does occur but it’s not at the scale that we initially proposed.”

The county has not yet provided a response to several questions from Ideastream Public Media late Tuesday morning around use of Title IV-E funding for the program.

The resolution to appropriate the funding at the reduced level for family support specialists program was approved by County Council Tuesday with no comments from any council members, outside of several asking to be added as names to the resolution.

The funding for the Say Yes support specialists is separate from the funding for scholarships for Cleveland students; about $96 million of $125 million total has been raised so far for those scholarships.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.