There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but Greensboro city councilmembers and other elected officials in the area are still in the process of determining whether or not there’s a free college tuition-funding program for high school graduates.

The program in question is Guilford County school systems’ new Say Yes to Education program, which is in the beginning stages of implementation in area schools – and some initial vetting of Say Yes took place at the Community Services Committee meeting on Thursday, Nov. 12 at the City Council meeting room in city hall in downtown Greensboro.

Three city councilmembers – Sharon Hightower, Justin Outling and Jamal Fox, the chairman of the Community Services Committee – discussed along with city staff whether or not the city should provide office space for the initiative.  Outling, who had questions about the proposed deal, pulled the item off the committee’s consent agenda in order to discuss it.  Say Yes was requesting to use office space at the Greensboro Public Library at 219 N. Church St. for six years beginning Jan. 1.  The deal calls for the Say Yes to pay the city $1 a year for the office space.

Outling’s questions appeared as an attempt to guard against this deal turning into something that would end up costing the city a lot of money in the future.

Say Yes to Education is a program that is just starting up in Guilford County Schools, but one that’s been in place for years in Syracuse, New York.   Earlier this year, Say Yes selected Guilford County as the site of the next major Say Yes program.  Say Yes advocates presented the program to city and county leaders as a way – with what they said was virtually no cost to the community – to assure the affordability of a college education for all graduates of students in Guilford County Schools.

 Say Yes, which began in 1987 when a wealthy money manager promised about 100 sixth graders in Philadelphia that he would pay their way through college if they graduated from high school, will use funds raised from private citizens and businesses to help pay the tuition at colleges in the North Carolina university system, at state community colleges and at some private schools that partner with Say Yes.  The program provides students with the “last dollars” needed to reach the total required payment for college tuition.  In cases where students have grants or scholarships, Say Yes money would make up any shortfall, and in cases where students have no money or scholarships available to them, Say Yes would pay the entire tuition at a participating school.

The Say Yes foundation has said it expects to put $15 million into Guilford County to establish the plan.  In return, they do want a few things, including this $1-a-year office space at the library from the Greensboro City Council, which has no responsibility for funding schools in Guilford County.  That’s done by the state, federal government and Guilford County, not Greensboro.

If it all sounds too good to be true, well, that’s the reason a lot of local leaders have raised some questions about the program.  They want to be sure that, like a lot of programs that are billed as essentially “free” to the community, Say Yes doesn’t end up costing the city, the county or schools a lot of money or resources down the line.

That’s why Outling had questions about the plans for the city to let Say Yes use the office space.  Outling said the information about the deal that was provided to the City Council stated that there would be “minimal budgetary impact,” and he asked Assistant Greensboro City Manager Chris Wilson about that claim.

 “Can you provide more information as to what is ‘minimal budgetary impact?’” Outling asked.

 “This is a space that we typically lease, so we are responsible for utilities,” Wilson explained.  “There is some minimal cost, but that is an anticipated cost because we lease that area, which we did previously.  In this particular case, Say Yes will invest in the facility, and they are going to improve our asset at a cost of $120,000 worth of improvements.  They will pay for their own janitorial services and they will pay for their own data and phone line.” 

Wilson said the six-year lease works out to “an equivalency” of what rent would have been once the $120,000 in improvements is made.  After the committee meeting, Wilson said the improvements to the office space needed to be made anyway, so the city would come out well in the deal.

At the meeting, Outling stated, “In prior presentations of Say Yes, there has been a representation that there aren’t any ‘asks’ of the city beyond the city providing wraparound services that it already provides.  Are you aware of any other requests by Say Yes?”

“You are correct in that our dialogue with Say Yes has been essentially to become the wraparound services that break down barriers to students’ success,” Wilson said, adding that those services included food and nutrition programs for some students, homework assistance programs for others, as well as housing assistance for families.

Wilson added, “But those are services that we budget for and are will continue to provide regardless.”

At the Nov. 12 committee meeting, Outling also wanted to know the benefits to the city of providing the office space to the program.

“Do you have any views on Say Yes benefits if we allow them?” he asked.

 “I would say there is a plethora of benefits,” Wilson responded.

He said the primary benefit would be the physical connection that city’s community services would have with the Say Yes workers.  He also said the location would put the staff in a central spot near the cultural center, and near his office.

“That obviously provides some opportunity there for connectivity,” Wilson said, adding that helps make the city staff and Say Yes staff “a more closely knit group.”

“It’s not to say we don’t already communicate with the schools,” Wilson said.  “That communication has already improved drastically.”

“We’re now finding ways to capitalize on resources of the group as opposed to working separately,” Wilson added.

At the meeting, the three committee members present were satisfied with what they heard and they voted to move the measure forward.  City Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann also serves on the committee but she was not present and, at the start of the meeting the other committee members voted for her absence to be excused.

The discussion at the Nov. 12 Community Services Committee meeting was non-contentious but are indicative of other larger discussion that are coming for Guilford County.  Even more so than the city councilmembers, the Guilford County commissioners have a lot more questions about the threat of hidden costs the county will have to take on due to the initiative.  That’s because, unlike the city, the county funds the school system.  In fact, as it is now, nearly half of Guilford County’s budget each year goes toward funding school operations and paying off existing school debt – so the commissioners are skeptical of anything that might drive that percentage up, no matter how attractive it looks on the surface.

That’s one reason the commissioners had so many questions for Say Yes officials and local Say Yes advocates earlier this year when the Board of Commissioners adopted a resolution tentatively backing Say Yes, after changing the resolution so that graduates of charter schools could also be included.  The commissioners agree that making a college education affordable to high school graduates is a good thing, but when the discussions start coming soon about the specific “asks” from the county and the cost of paying for those – like asking the city for office space – the Republican-majority Board of Commissioners will have plenty of questions.

Many of the commissioners are already a little ticked that graduates of charter schools are excluded from of the program – but several commissioners said they now feel that there is a good faith effort to include those students in upcoming years.

Say Yes has assured the county that the program will essentially be nothing but upside.  However, city councilmembers and county commissioners have been seen programs and initiatives that come in at no cost at the start but end up costing a bundle on the back end. 

Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson said Guilford County has a lot of deals where they rent office and building space at $1 a year, and he said it doesn’t need more of those.

“I don’t think you’ll see any free rides,” Branson said.

He said that the commissioners want to support positive change in Guilford County but that they have to stay vigilant in controlling cost creep for all programs including Say Yes.

“Going forward, you will still see questions,” Branson said of that program’s implementation.

Branson said there’s been talk of wraparound services the county will be expected to provide in support of Say Yes, but he added that they don’t know much about those yet, and he said the board didn’t want to get into a position where they are being hit up for a lot of expenses they didn’t sign up for.

The commissioners and the city have a prime example of that in the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which was initially billed as something that would have virtually no costs to the county but which, after it was approved and the project was underway, turned out to have a big cost for both the county and the city.  Greensboro is just one of many municipalities in Guilford County, yet it put $250,000 into starting that new Guilford County department – while Gibsonville, High Point, Jamestown, Oak Ridge, Pleasant Garden, Sedalia, Stokesdale, Summerfield and Whitsett spent nothing for this new countywide department even though they will all benefit from it.

But that’s just one example for the county.  Another example was the “free gift” of Hagan-Stone Park from the City of Greensboro that ended up costing the county hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.  Due to way the land is deeded it is virtually impossible for the county to ever sell the park so the county will likely incur those cost for many, many years to come.