Say Yes Guilford hasn’t said much publicly in recent months, however, behind the scenes, Say Yes officials have been meeting to figure out which direction to take the highly touted scholarship program that saw a huge setback earlier this year.
Leaders of the group have now adopted a set of 12-month goals for Say Yes Guilford that includes being more open about finances, a reevaluation of the group’s governance structure, the creation of a task force to determine future funding goals and a desire to create a program in which all families, not just low-income ones, will get “tangible value propositions” from the program.
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 income levels; however, in March 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 had said it would pay the remainder of tuition costs at member colleges and universities after all other student grants and loans were exhausted – often known as “last dollar” scholarships – but 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.
Though high-income and many middle-income families were cut out of the scholarships earlier this year, the new Say Yes goals state the program will strive to get back on a path that helps, in some way at least, families of all income levels.
However, some elected officials say they’re uncertain about the program’s future prospects after a rough 2017. Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson, who’s expected to be the next chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said Say Yes Guilford’s announcement that it wouldn’t be able to meet its promises was a real jolt to area families that made college plans for their kids based on the Say Yes commitments.
“I’m not sure it will be sustainable,” Branson said of Say Yes Guilford.
Branson said that the initial financial models had been way off and, after that March announcement, there was significantly less enthusiasm for the program among many county residents.
High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said that, even though the program had to push the reset button last spring, it is still a big positive for the area.
“I think Say Yes is a wonderful initiative,” Bencini said. “I know they could not keep it viable at the previous levels, but I don’t think it’s a failure, because a lot of kids got scholarships. Hopefully, they can make some changes and continue on with fundraising.”
Bencini said he knows that the High Point Community Foundation has been active in its effort to raise money for Say Yes in that city, but he added it isn’t surprising that donations fell off after the disappointment earlier this year.
“There was a letdown with the level of participation after the first scholarship program wasn’t sustainable,” he said.
In an effort to regroup and perhaps reorganize, Say Yes officials say they have been meeting for the purpose of discussing, evaluating and adopting goals for the upcoming year in order to make the program a success going forward.
One of the criticisms of Say Yes Guilford has been that the leadership structure is way too vast and complex. It has boards, committees, executive committees, local leadership, national Say Yes to Education leadership and more. Many local officials see a need to reorganize the governance structure to create a simpler and less unwieldy one, with fewer cooks stirring the pot and with those cooks more on the same page.
The first goal listed in the new 12-month plan states that the Say Yes Scholarship Board, which is responsible for establishing the policies that control how scholarships are awarded, will “review and agree on formal roles and responsibilities of board members.”
Indications are that Say Yes donations have dropped from 2015 and 2016 levels, but it’s not clear how much. Two sources said that one good thing for the group is that all existing pledges continue to be honored even after the disappointing announcement earlier this year that Say Yes Guilford would not be able to provide scholarship money to all families.
The group also needs to figure out what kind of money it can expect to raise going forward, as well as how much it will need to pay out each year.
One bullet point from the Say Yes list of goals states, “The Scholarship Board will appoint a subcommittee to review and refine the scholarship model to ascertain [the] level of projected needs, potential policy changes, and fundraising requirements over the long term by August, 2018.”
It adds that the model will be reviewed and updated annually.
Say Yes Executive Director Donnie Turlington said his organization has been focused in recent months on overseeing scholarship payments being made to students who entered college in the fall, but he said his organization is also gathering data about future costs to see what future scholarship benefits are viable. Turlington, who became executive director in September, said those decisions are still being discussed, but he added that the group is now on more solid footing than it was in March.
“I feel like things have stabilized and we are just trying to help as many families as we can,” Turlington said. “I think fundraising is stable.”
He said the shape and size of future benefits is being determined and said Say Yes is collecting information to that end.
“We haven’t done a full analysis of the next class, so they don’t have any exact numbers of how many people will want money,” Turlington said.
He also said the Scholarship Board will review all the economic factors and donation projections and come up with a plan.
“They will take a long look at it,” Turlington said.
The new goals adopted by the scholarship board state an intention that the group will be open about the amount of money the group raises as well as pays out in scholarships.
“In partnership with The Say Yes Guilford Partnership,” the guidelines state, “Say Yes and other community organizations, the Scholarship Board will share data between SY [Say Yes], SYG [Say Yes Guilford], and Countywide Partners to include disbursements, projections vs. actuals, fundraising activities and results, cash flows, etc.”
In 2016 and early 2017, some citizens complained that Say Yes Guilford wasn’t being transparent about its fundraising amounts or its payouts. In late 2016, after the group offered a presentation that did provide a lot of that requested information, Say Yes clammed up again at the end of 2016 and in early 2017 until many questions piled up and a Rhino Times story reported that the group would fall drastically short of its needed funding to meet its promises to students from families of all income levels.
According to the list of goals, Say Yes Guilford is asking itself a lot of questions regarding its long-term plans: Should the group try to work toward the seemingly unobtainable goal of providing total last dollar scholarships to all families? If not, what should the qualifications for funds be? And what changes in Say Yes Guilford governance, if any, should be made?
According to the adopted guidelines, those are questions the group is still asking. The Say Yes Scholarship Board, in conjunction with the Community Foundations of High Point and Greensboro, will appoint a task force that will determine a 12-month fundraising goal.
The stated hope is that Say Yes Guilford will “solidify current pledges and show some success of bringing additional funding tied to the updated endowment goal and communicate the goal to The Say Yes Guilford Partnership and Say Yes.”
The Scholarship Board and The Say Yes Guilford Partnership will develop and deliver messaging and policies that communicate and maintain a path to a “universal” scholarship program that includes a “tangible value proposition” for all students and families that attend Guilford County Schools. The wording is vague, but it may mean that middle-income and higher-income families get at least something from the program even if not the same last dollar funding that lower income families are getting.
There is also a clear desire of Say Yes Guilford to gain control of the group’s messaging. In March, Say Yes Guilford officials were displeased that news of the giant financial shortfall was published weeks before, Say Yes indicated later, it had planned to make news of the giant letdown public. The 12-month adopted goals stress a need for keeping information in-house until the group as a whole is ready to make information public.
The guidelines state, “Members agree that the discussions are confidential prior to the formal release of information via an established communications plan co-created with the Scholarship Board and the Countywide Partners.”
Another thing still up in the air is “wrap around services.” Say Yes Guilford said it would provide Guilford County Schools with those services. Though that term has never been defined, it appears to pertain to various support services for students that remove barriers to learning. That can be anything from health and nutrition services to after-school tutoring. The adopted 12-month goals don’t refer to the wrap-around services that were promised in 2015 for Guilford County schools, but it does state that the Scholarship Board will develop and approve “policies that drive long-term commitment by all partners to scale and sustain the evidence-based academic, social and health supports that enable all children to thrive.”
Turlington said the group continues to work on implementing wrap-around services.
“We are still committed to those,” Turlington said.
There are 12 “launch” schools, he added, where those programs will be implemented. He said those schools represent “a cross-section” of county schools.
After Say Yes Guilford announced the giant scholarship money shortfall in March, the group began saying that the real heart of the program is the wrap-around services, but, so far, those have been late in coming. Parents and the media have been asking about those services that are still not in place.
According to Turlington, the wrap-around programs are coming and those under consideration are ones that help remove obstacles from a student’s ability to learn.
He said some provided in other states by the program are mental health services, low-cost or no-cost dental and vision programs or other medical services. There’s also, in some Say Yes programs, free legal aid for non-criminal occurrences, such as eviction and divorce. The reduction in strife can help improve a child’s home environment and thus their ability to learn in school.
Turlington said one key is in making sure any new programs are financially sustainable and that’s why Say Yes Guilford wants to implement those with caution.
The Scholarship Board, working with Say Yes Guilford staff, will review the current payout protocols and make revisions to the current processes to insure timely, accurate and efficient payouts in the future.
Turlington also said there have been some “logistical things” that have made the job of Say Yes more difficult this academic year. He said the US Department of Education had new rules regarding what information colleges and universities could share with Say Yes, and that was making things more difficult.
“They restricted some data,” he said. “They told us late in the game this year. We didn’t get word on that until early September.”
Turlington said Say Yes has been working through those challenges.
According to the new guidelines, the Scholarship Board will meet at least once every two months and the Executive Committee of the Scholarship Board will meet on alternative months.
For the school year 2017-2018, in the new reduced scholarship amounts, students in families with an annual family income of $40,000 or less received 100 percent of the last-dollar tuition amounts, after financial aid – if those students had been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since ninth grade. Those with an annual family income of between $40,001 and $75,000 got up to $4,500 in Say Yes tuition assistance after other financial aid packages kick in – if those students have been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since the sixth grade. Eligible students with an annual family income of $75,001 to $100,000 could get up to $2,250 in tuition assistance if they’ve been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since the fourth grade.
According to the guidelines released in March, any family with an annual income of more than $100,000 was no longer eligible for Say Yes tuition scholarship money.
The national Say Yes organization keeps the vast majority of its funds in the Cayman Islands and multiple Say Yes officials, when asked why the group chose to keep the money there, have refused to answer. Say Yes Guilford, on the other hand, says it keeps the money for that program at local financial institutions.
The Say Yes to Education program was founded by billionaire George Weiss 30 years ago in Philadelphia when Weiss promised to pay the college tuition costs of more than 100 inner-city sixth graders as long as 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.