A Say Yes banner on the front of Marion Seltzer Elementary School
A Say Yes banner on the front of Marion Seltzer Elementary School Credit: Paul Rochford / Signal Cleveland

A Cleveland City Council committee approved legislation Tuesday to spend $600,000 of the city’s share of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars on Say Yes Cleveland’s family support services program. But this money is only enough to pay the salaries of the family support specialists for about three weeks, said Say Yes Cleveland’s Executive Director Diane Downing.

The family support services program provides wraparound services for K-12 students and families enrolled in Cleveland Metropolitan School District and partner charter schools. The family support specialists at the core of this program, many of whom are social workers, do  everything from tutoring and after school programming to connecting families with legal services and mental health care. 

This program supplements Say Yes Cleveland’s signature college scholarship program by giving students support they need while enrolled in K-12 schools so that they can succeed after graduation. The funding for the scholarship program, which is separate from the support specialist program, comes largely from private donors.

Say Yes Cleveland’s family support program has faced financial concerns since summer 2022 when Cuyahoga County Health and Human Services officials told the county council the state had reduced funding for the program.

Where’s the money?

The state receives federal Title IV-E funding to support children in foster care. County officials said they were only being reimbursed by the state for Say Yes services provided to students in custody of the Department of Children and Family Services, not the whole program, as Say Yes and the county expected. In a November Cuyahoga County Council committee meeting, the director of Health and Human Services said the state “led us to believe that the Say Yes program would be reimbursable,” but a federal law ended that in 2018. County Council members were visibly upset that they had not heard from county officials about the change sooner. 

Jon Benedict, communications director for Say Yes Cleveland, told Signal Cleveland that so far this year, County Council has given $2.6 million to the program, $1 million of that came from the County’s ARPA funding. Even if Cleveland City Council passes this one-time allocation of $600,000 ARPA dollars, there would still be a $2.9 million gap the program needs to fill to make it to the end of the fiscal year, July 31, 2023.

After four years of developing the program, Say Yes now employs 104 support specialists – one  in every CMSD school and partner charter school. The ARPA money from Cleveland City Council would fund those positions.

Downing told City Council members the current solution to the gap is for Say Yes to lobby state officials and negotiate a plan to access the Title IV-E funding that was initially in the budget.  

Salaries and benefits for the support specialists cost about $9.4 million annually, and one-third of that funding comes from CMSD and partner charter schools, according to Downing. In her ideal solution, the rest would come from the Title IV-E funds.

“There needs to be a real policy solution”

Many council members talked about how valuable this program is for their constituents, but they expressed concern that Downing’s solution is not guaranteed. Council member Stephanie Howse, Ward 7, said Downing’s plan could fall through, especially since it depends on decisions made by state legislators and officials.

“The worst thing you could do is get children’s hopes up, get their aspirations together, have families make critical decisions, then yank the rug out from under them,” said Council President Blaine Griffin.

Council Member Howse said she wants a real policy solution to this funding problem, not one-time emergency funds. “We need to find out how much it costs to educate a Cleveland student … and find out how we are going to find the dollars necessary to educate our children regardless of the barriers that are in front of us,” she said.

Council Members Richard Starr, Ward 5, and Joseph Jones, Ward 1, suggested that Say Yes work with CMSD to increase the portion of their budget that goes toward the support specialist program.

Another possible solution: Griffin said he would look into whether the City of Cleveland could negotiate the use of the money with the state, rather than Cuyahoga County. Griffin said he thinks gaining access to the Title IV-E funds for this program could have been easier if the city were responsible for managing the funds. 

The members of council’s Workforce, Education, Training and Youth Development Committee also asked the Say Yes administrators for more transparency and accountability about outcomes of the program. Members voted to add an amendment to the ARPA legislation requiring Say Yes Cleveland to provide a quarterly report of services provided in Cleveland schools.

Want to hear more of council’s discussion on the legislation? You can watch the livestream of the meeting here or read through Documenter Seanna Jackson’s live Twitter thread here.

K-12 Education Reporter (he/him)
Paul, a former City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member based in a charter school, covered K-12 education for Signal Cleveland until August, 2023. Paul joined us from Cleveland Documenters, where he focused on creating infographics and civic tech to make public information more accessible. Paul is also a musician, photographer and graphic designer.