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County Council to consider $1 million for Say Yes, but council member wants Cleveland to help too

 A piece of wall art that includes the word "support" hangs on the wall of Donna Dixon's office.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
A piece of wall art that includes the word "support" hangs on the wall of Say Yes Family Support Specialist Donna Dixon's office at the Cleveland School of Science and Medicine on the John Hay High School campus.

A Cuyahoga County Council committee Wednesday advanced a $1 million proposal to help close a gap in the funding for family support services offered as part of Cleveland’s Say Yes scholarship program.

The money, which comes from American Rescue Plan Act dollars, will help but won’t completely close the $4.5 million total funding gap facing Say Yes’ family support specialist program at Cleveland Metropolitan School District and partnering charter schools. The proposal now goes to the full Cuyahoga County Council, which will need to vote to approve it after reading it during two more sessions.

County Council Education Committee Chair Sunny Simon said Wednesday she supported the measure, but was frustrated by the city’s refusal to do the same. She peppered Say Yes Cleveland Executive Director Dianne Downing with questions during the Wednesday Education, Environment and Sustainability committee meeting.

“You have not received word from the city of Cleveland that they’re going to commit a dime toward the support specialists?” she said.

“Not yet, but the mayor has been supportive of the program and the discussions are continuing,” Downing responded.

Simon responded that it doesn’t seem like the city is supportive if they haven’t committed to supporting the program yet.

“These are Cleveland schools, this should be a priority of the administration, of that city council,” she said.

Downing responded by noting that over 50% of the students Say Yes serves have already had interaction with the county Department of Job and Family Services. Say Yes officials have previously noted that the support specialists are "preventative" in nature, heading off issues student families are facing like homelessness, hunger, mental health issues, and substance abuse struggles before they become larger problems for the county, hoping to keep families together to prevent students entering into the foster care system.

“So they are all our children; they’re not just the city of Cleveland’s children,” Downing said.

Simon said she understands that fact but still questioned why the city of Cleveland hasn’t been providing funding support for the program.

Marie Zickefoose, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, provided the following statement in response to Simon's assertions.

"The city recognizes the importance of Say Yes family support specialists and we are working with Say Yes to explore ways to support the program," she said.

The funding gap for the family support specialist program — which places staff in every school building to help students overcome barriers on the way to college — occurred when county council realized earlier this year that the county was not being reimbursed with federal IV-E funds. These funds, typically meant to help pay for foster care, had originally been proposed as a way to pay the county back for its support of the support specialists when Say Yes started the program in 2019.

That realization led to the council reducing its support for the program — estimated to cost about $9.25 million this fiscal year — by $4.5 million several months ago.

Downing said Say Yes took Simon’s concerns about the sustainability of the program “seriously” and has been working diligently to try to find different sources of funds. The two main goals are to find enough money to close the rest of the funding gap to allow the support specialists to continue work through the end of the fiscal year in June 2023 and to find a more sustainable funding source.

She said efforts have included talking to Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and city council leadership, talking to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, along with the county Job and Family Services department, to see if Say Yes could again become eligible for IV-E funding and contacting Say Yes Buffalo to learn about their funding model. She said Bibb has reached out to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine about the funding gap as well.

Simon also had a tense exchange with Cuyahoga County Health and Human Services Director David Merriman about why county council wasn’t told sooner about the lack of IV-E reimbursement. Merriman said the county had been “led to believe” by the state of Ohio that the reimbursement could happen for Say Yes, but a federal policy change in 2018 invalidated that. The Say Yes program was just getting started in 2018.

Merriman said the change in funding was explained during county budget discussions, without stating when, but Simon cut him off.

“This was never discussed at any meeting publicly,” she said. “And if you can find something showing that, I will stand corrected.”

Simon said she wasn’t done looking at what went wrong and suggested bringing up the former director of Health and Human Services during a future meeting to figure out what happened.

Cuyahoga County spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan has previously declined to specify when the county government noticed the funding discrepancy.

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 has said dipping any further into that levy money is a no-go for her.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.