Say Yes Guilford took a big hit earlier this year when representatives of the highly touted college scholarship assistance program for Guilford County Schools graduates announced that Say Yes would only provide college tuition aid to those in lower-income brackets – and not students from all families, as was previously billed.
Now Say Yes backers are trying pick up the pieces, put the past behind them and move forward by generating new enthusiasm, new fundraising and fresh support from area local governments and the Guilford County Board of Education.
Say Yes to Education was founded by philanthropic billionaire George Weiss 30 years ago when Weiss promised to pay the college tuition costs of 112 inner-city Philadelphia sixth graders if they graduated from high school.
In the 2016 Guilford County incarnation of the program, Say Yes planned to pay the “last dollar” tuition cost for all students – the portion of the bill left after all other grants and loans were taken into account – for students attending selected participating colleges, including those in the University of North Carolina system.
At least, that was the plan.
In early March, the Rhino Times reported that Say Yes was limiting scholarships due to a massive financial miscalculation in the amount of money the program would need to fund such a program. Three weeks after that revelation, Say Yes Guilford officials announced that the organization would offer help only to lower-income families and put other restrictions on the payouts and qualifying criteria as well.
Those changes angered many parents and students who had based their college choices – and even home-buying decisions – on promises made by Say Yes. With great effort and over $1 million in emergency funding from the Say Yes national organization, Say Yes Guilford was able to meet its first year obligations for school year 2016-2017, but the new organization announced there was no way it could afford to grandfather in those students for the following three years of their college education – despite the fact that those families were counting on tuition help from Say Yes for the entire four years.
In the aftermath of the public relations disaster, Say Yes Guilford has been trying to regroup and recover, and in recent weeks it has taken the first step: what some area elected officials have been calling the “Say Yes apology tour.”
In private meetings at business offices and in restaurants – sometimes in one-on-one meetings and sometimes in small groups – Say Yes Guilford officials, as well as those from the national office, have been meeting with county commissioners, school board members, city councilmembers and other local leaders in an attempt to shore up support for the program and get the fundraising effort moving again. For instance, on Tuesday evening, May 23, local and national Say Yes representatives met with Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips and others at B. Christopher’s in downtown Greensboro to discuss the matter.
Say Yes has also held a dozen public information sessions at area schools and other locations to explain to parents and students what the changes announced in late March will mean for program participants.
After the big revision in qualifying criteria, and profuse public apologies, Say Yes Guilford organizers are working hard to recoup some of the tremendous momentum the program had in 2015 and 2016 when Say Yes officials and school staff touted the program in auditoriums full of cheering children, complete with balloons and confetti in the air.
In the meantime, despite the problems that the program faces in Guilford County, the national Say Yes to Education organization is adding, undaunted and unfazed, another place where the program will be established – the Cleveland, Ohio, public school system. Say Yes has chapters in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; and Syracuse and Buffalo, New York.
Mary Vigue, the former executive director of Say Yes Guilford, who stepped down suddenly and mysteriously from that position late last year, has now taken a job as director of the City of Raleigh Budget and Management Services Department at a salary of $130,000 a year. An announcement put out by that city briefly mentioned Vigue’s work with the program: “Most recently, Ms. Vigue served as executive director of Say Yes to Education Guilford. The organization created post-high school opportunities for students in Guilford County Schools through scholarship incentives and K-12 wraparound support services.”
Elected officials in Guilford County have been commenting to each other about recent articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that look just like those published in Guilford County two years ago. One recent article reads, “If the program picks Cleveland, the partnership’s goal would be to guarantee free tuition as early as 2018 for every Cleveland school district graduate, regardless of family income, at any state university, or at participating school in other states.”
Another article quotes school officials as saying that Say Yes is a “game-changer” – a two-word phrase that was used quite frequently in Guilford County to describe the program in 2015 and 2016.
Also, like in Guilford County, Say Yes, according to the Plain Dealer, would “provide a $15 million gift to the city, along with 30 years of experience of giving tuition grants.” Say Yes has pledged to invest the same amount in Guilford County Schools.
In fact, the photo posted with the Plain Dealer’s article is one from 2015, of cheering and pom-pom waiving students at a Say Yes rally in Guilford County.
As there was in Guilford County when Say Yes arrived, in Cleveland there is a debate whether charter schools would be included.
One Guilford County commissioner who read a Plain Dealer article said it was interesting how, when it comes to the articles being written about what’s going on in Cleveland, the name “Cleveland” could be taken out and “Guilford County” inserted and the articles would almost be identical to those that ran in Guilford County in 2015.
Press accounts in Cleveland seem to reflect no awareness of the issues that have arisen with the program in Guilford County.
While the Say Yes program in Cleveland seems to be generating as much enthusiasm as Say Yes did in Guilford County in 2015, the Say Yes Guilford group is facing several obstacles when it comes to getting it back on track. The organization still has their goal set of raising $70 million – as it was before – and they have commitments for about $42 million that will be paid to Say Yes Guilford over a five-year period. Say Yes Guilford did have about $5 million of that $42 million in hand but it had to use that money to cover the giant unanticipated costs to cover just the first year of Guilford County students entering college in 2016-2017.
According to one estimate, what would be needed to make a sustainable Say Yes Guilford program that would help every student is $550 million – a number everyone agrees is unobtainable, which is why the program had to scale back and move forward with a greatly reduced goal.
Say Yes Guilford Communications Director Donnie Turlington said this week that the group has refined its financial calculations and now has a good understanding of where those went wrong before. He said Say Yes Guilford staff believes that, going forward, the program will be able to fulfill the scholarship needs under the new limited criteria.
Turlington said the organization has been doing what it can to explain the new criteria and its implications for students and families. That included a dozen presentations at schools, libraries and churches around the county.
“We started in the month of April talking to students and families,” Turlington said.
He said the fundraising effort also continues but, as of now, there aren’t any major high-profile fundraising events for Say Yes Guilford on the schedule.
“We don’t have anything specific planned,” he said. “We don’t traditionally do a dinner or anything like that.”
Turlington said the new scholarship projections from the Say Yes Guilford Scholarship Board – the ruling body that makes many of the decisions for the local program – are “more in line” with available funds, but he added that there could still be some tweaks to the payout formula and qualifications in upcoming years.
“They’ll continue to work on it,” Turlington said of the scholarship qualification criteria.
He also said a new overall goal amount for the program hasn’t been determined.
“There’s not been any formal discussion to my knowledge,” Turlington said. “We’ve still got to get to $70 million.”
The organization is also in talks with elected officials and other local leaders and funding sources, and is now stressing “wraparound” services that Say Yes is expected to implement in schools with the help of area governments and local partners.
“We can’t say for sure what those will be,” Turlington said, but he added that examples could be things like after-school mentoring programs and “low-cost or no-cost” health services, or mental health assistance and nutrition plans for students.
“We just don’t know the specifics yet,” he said. “We’re collecting data and analysis from parents, teachers and students.”
Turlington said that will give Say Yes leaders a clearer idea of what actual wraparound services will be needed to help area students excel.
One thing the Guilford County commissioners have been frustrated about over the last two years is that there’s been a lot of discussion regarding wraparound services but the commissioners still don’t know what those are. One commissioner said recently that many of the types of things Say Yes officials hint at – mental health programs, school nurses, social services-based programs – fall under county government but the commissioners still have no idea what they will be expected to support in that regard or how much it might cost county taxpayers.
Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan said that, despite the Say Yes Guilford setback earlier this year, there are some positive signs.
“No one has gone back on their commitments,” Duncan said of those who have promised money so far.
Duncan also said that, in terms of future fundraising, it may be a positive rather than a negative that the benefits are now targeted at low-income families and students, rather than those from all socio-economic levels. Duncan said that, in the previous fundraising efforts, some donors were reluctant to give money knowing that some of it would be going to very well off families who really didn’t need aid.
Others in the community have also been making that same point since the scale back in Say Yes offerings, but it may be a somewhat Panglossian view given that so much of the excitement surrounding the program was generated by the fact that it was a benefit to everyone with school kids, not just the poor. Also, the commitments seem to have leveled off at just over the $40-million mark nearly a year ago. At a meeting in Jamestown last November, one Say Yes official attributed that stall to it being “the political season.”
Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson, who runs a family trucking business and has a daughter at UNC-Wilmington, benefited from the first year of the Say Yes program but will not do so under the new limited criteria. He said a large part of the program’s appeal came from the fact that it didn’t just help the underprivileged. He said the recent changes make it a lot more like many run-of the-mill programs that help the needy.
“We continue to fund those who are less fortunate and the middle-class continues to get the shaft,” Branson said.
Branson also said that Say Yes supporter Walker Sanders, the president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, had asked to meet with him to talk about the program.
According to Branson, one message from Sanders was that Say Yes hadn’t done a good job communicating with the county commissioners in the past and they planned to do better in that regard in the future.
Branson said that recent events have soured a lot of parents.
“They have a huge problem continuing to sell it to the public with some of the concerns over the first-year roll out,” Branson said. “Folks are not exactly pleased, and I would not want to be the ones having to sell it.”
He also said he doesn’t know if the program in Guilford County will even be around in a year or two.
“They are probably in survival mode,” Branson said of Say Yes Guilford.