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The race is on to plug Say Yes Cleveland funding gap that Cuyahoga County created

Say Yes Cleveland's Lamont Davis, a family support specialist, talks with seventh grader Christopher Lewis at Bolton Elementary School on Aug. 30. 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Lamont Davis talks with seventh grader Christopher Lewis at Bolton Elementary School on Aug. 30. 2022.

The race is on for Say Yes Cleveland to find enough money to plug a $4 million-plus gap left after Cuyahoga County Council cut funding for the family support specialist program Say Yes Cleveland had begun.

The funding gap, if left unaddressed, will mean support services for 100-plus Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools will end in March, before the end of the school year. Family support specialists play a key role in helping low-income families find aid on a host of issues, from homelessness to hunger. Say Yes Cleveland's district-wide scholarship program will not be affected by this reduction in funding.

Cuyahoga County Council voted to approved $4.9 million in funding earlier this month, far short of the $9.256 million originally budgeted for the program, after discovering that the county was not being reimbursed for its expenditures through federal Title IV-E funds, typically meant to fund foster-care programs.

Sunny Simon, chair of council's Education, Environment and Sustainability Committee, said in an interview last week that she didn’t know until roughly a month and a half prior that the county was not able to use the Title IV-E funds to support the program.

“The administration should have told us,” she said. “This whole program was predicated on the IV-E funding. This was sold to us by the administration through the former chief of staff that this was a great program, and we can do it because we have IV-E reimbursement."

The county had been funding the family support specialist program since 2019 when, according to Say Yes Cleveland spokesperson Jon Benedict, the convening organizations that created Say Yes – which included Cuyahoga County – agreed on a model to fund the program at a rate of 1/3rd of funding coming from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the rest coming from Cuyahoga County. Some portion of the county funds would be reimbursed by the IV-E funds, per the original agreement, Benedict said.

He said the county was recognized as the one to provide this funding for two reasons.

“A: They [county] would be the only entity that can pursue IV-E reimbursement from the state," he said. "But, also, B: The work of our family support specialists are essentially preventative, and their interventions are designed to, over time, reduce the number of students and families that end up in the County’s social services system."

So when exactly did the county realize it couldn’t use IV-E funds to pay for the program? It’s not clear.

Mary Louise Madigan, spokesperson for the county, said she “didn’t have a timeline” for when the county government made that realization. And she couldn’t say how much IV-E funding had been going to the program.

“We submit IV-E reimbursement quarterly, so I can’t tell you how much of the quarterly reimbursements were for which positions, whether it was a social worker or anybody [with Say Yes],” she said, noting the IV-E budget is “huge” and isn’t broken down in that way.

So did the county find out independently about the inability to use IV-E funding for Say Yes Cleveland, or did the state notify the county? That’s also not clear from Madigan’s statements. She said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, at some unidentified point, outlined the “case management requirements for drawing IV-E funds" after speaking with the county.

“Say Yes could not meet those requirements, but we are working with them to see if adjustments can be made that would address the ODJFS guidance,” Madigan said.

Ohio Department of Job and Family Services spokesperson Bill Teets said he looked into this situation with the section of the department that provides technical assistance to counties, and could not “immediately” find where ODJFS had provided guidance to the county.

Once the county noticed the discrepancy, Madigan said, the funding for the program shifted to be entirely funded by the county Health and Human Services levy. Simon said dipping any further into that levy money is a no-go for her.

“We were proud to launch it in Cleveland, we were proud to support CMSD in this way,” she said. “We know it uplifts children who might not otherwise be uplifted. But, you know, it’s so cost prohibitive. Without that IV-E reimbursement, we probably would have not passed it because it goes into our HHS reserves at this point.”

When asked if County Council had considered using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money to reduce the funding gap, Simon said that decision would be up to the county administration because it’s “the executive’s program.” She suggested the city of Cleveland step up with its own ARPA money to close the gap, noting the county has other school districts to consider.

“We’re not able to support our own school districts in our own communities,” she said.

Lamont Davis, a family support specialist who was profiled by Ideastream Public Media earlier this year, said the services the specialists provide aren’t available elsewhere in schools. They’re essentially a one-stop shop for families’ needs.

“I think that [losing specialists] that'll be a huge blow, our parents and our children depend on us. I get calls every day, you know, looking for resources as far as, housing, legal aid, even addressing medical health,” he said.

Benedict said Say Yes is pursuing two separate angles right now on funding, one meant to plug the gap in funding for this school year and another to seek out a more sustainable funding model for the future.

Helen Williams, education program director for the Cleveland Foundation, was part of the group that formed the Say Yes Cleveland program from the beginning. She said family support specialists play an important role in “keeping families together” and out of the county foster care system.

“It’s unfortunate what happened with the county funding,” she said. “I hope that they will revisit it. They need to be part of it, it’s part of their role, they are an important leader in this along with the city, school district and the private sector and philanthropic sector.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.