Say Yes to Education, the national Philadelphia-based organization that helps provide college tuition to high school graduates, has reached an agreement with Say Yes Guilford, the local chapter, to turn management of Guilford County’s scholarship program over to a soon to be established local governing board. On Tuesday, July 3, Say Yes to Education and Say Yes Guilford signed an agreement to that effect.

Say Yes Guilford Executive Director Donnie Turlington will step down from that position after helping with the transition of leadership responsibilities from the national to the local organization.

Before the agreement was signed Tuesday, many of the decisions made for Say Yes Guilford were being made out of Philadelphia and New York by the national Say Yes to Education group. However, the coming board made up of local education and community leaders will take over those leadership responsibilities.

Say Yes Guilford will keep the same name for the program.

Originally, Say Yes to Education planned to contribute $15 million in “seed money” in its first five years in Guilford County to help establish the program. However, with the national group now turning the reigns over to local leaders, the new financial arrangement calls for about $13 million of that $15 million to be spent in Guilford County by Say Yes to Education.

The good news for students using the program and their families is that the transfer of leadership responsibilities from the national organization to the new local board isn’t expected to affect the payout of scholarships for those in the program. Those in seventh grade or up in Guilford County’s school system should not see any changes.

One source close to the talks said shortly before the agreement was signed, “Everybody is working to see that there is no change in the scholarships.”

The leadership change is expected to affect some “wrap-around services” promised by the national Say Yes program – though even three years into the Say Yes program in Guilford County no one seems very clear what those services were intended to be in the first place. The conversation about wrap-around services has always been nebulous, but Say Yes officials have stated that those services will create a better learning environment for kids at home and at school. Some possibilities mentioned publicly by Say Yes officials over the years have included tutoring, family counseling and new programs to enhance student nutrition and health.

The local governing board is expected to include former Guilford County Board of Education Chairman Alan Duncan, Guilford County Schools Chief of Staff Nora Carr, High Point Community Foundation Chairman David Miller, Guilford County Council of PTAs Representative Mildred Poole and others.

Over the years, some local officials – including several Guilford County commissioners – have criticized the fact that so many of the decisions regarding the Say Yes program have come from the national group. At times, using a national model in Guilford County has led to big problems.

“The local community sees this as a positive,” one source said of the coming leadership change.

The Say Yes to Education program was founded by billionaire George Weiss over 30 years ago in Philadelphia when Weiss promised to pay the college tuition costs of 112 inner-city sixth graders if they graduated from high school. Since then, Say Yes has expanded into other northeastern school systems in Syracuse, Buffalo and New York City as well as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. In most cases, Say Yes pays the “last dollar” tuition cost for all students – the portion of the college bill left after all other grants and loans are taken into account. The program has historically done that regardless of income – and that was a big selling point in getting the Guilford County community behind it, but early last year Say Yes made massive changes.

The program began in Guilford County in 2015 with the announcement, made, with a great deal of hoopla, that Say Yes Guilford would provide scholarship aid to students in families of all incomes. However, in March 2017, the group announced that, due to a huge miscalculation and a giant shortfall in funds, it would begin means-testing benefits since there wasn’t anywhere close to enough money to fund what the group had initially promised. Say Yes discovered that an endowment fund to pay out that kind of money would need to be over $500 million, instead of the initial goal of about $70 million.

This week, Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said he’d heard of a significant change coming to Say Yes. He said he believes this change may be fallout from the debacle last year when it became clear that the national model had led to massive miscalculations in Guilford County. Henning said that, when the financial model for Say Yes Guilford collapsed, local officials handled the situation as well as they could – with forthrightness and frankness – but added that he thought the national organization did a lot of unfair finger pointing at that time.

“I think that what happened is that the locals trusted a lot of the things they were told by the national organization and, when the national model failed, the national group threw the local leaders under the bus,” Henning said.

He also said the local Say Yes leaders deserve credit for the way they recovered and kept the program going, but he added that the whole experience helped widen the already present divide between the national organization and the local one.

He said he felt Say Yes national should have taken more of the blame for the problems in early 2017.

“They came to us with all of this,” Henning said. “It was their model, not ours.”

Henning also said that the national Say Yes representatives talked about wrap-around services that would be implemented at no cost to Guilford County, but then wanted the county to take social services workers out of the field and put them in schools to provide those services.  He said Say Yes representatives were informed that it would cost the county money to do that since Guilford County would have to hire new social services workers, and he said that in addition there were barriers in state law that prevented the county from altering the responsibilities of the social services workers.

There was an interesting hint of the coming change buried toward the end of a letter from Duncan to Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras on Wednesday, June 20 – Duncan’s resignation letter from the Board of Education. In the letter, Duncan stated that, although he was stepping down from the school board, he would remain active “in the efforts of the local Say Yes affiliated initiative as it revitalizes under a local control model.”