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Erie County is stepping forward to help cover the costs of working with truant Buffalo Public Schools students and overseeing the expansion of school-based mental health clinics.

The move, done in partnership with Say Yes Buffalo, represents the latest example of how local governments that have long taken a hands-off approach to the Buffalo school district are now agreeing to become more hands-on.

The county has agreed to cover nearly two-thirds of the cost associated with hiring site facilitators at 14 Buffalo schools to work with students with low attendance. It has also agreed to provide oversight for 14 new mental health clinics in some of the city’s highest-needs schools.

County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said that providing the grant and administrative resources to the Buffalo schools should result in a more educated and career-ready population with fewer social services needs down the road.

“It really was, ‘How can we make a difference in the City of Buffalo that will also help the local economy?’ ” Poloncarz said.

Say Yes currently has 27 site facilitators in Buffalo’s public schools and expects to have one in every city school by 2015-16. County funding will cover the costs of seven existing facilitators and the hiring of seven more within the next few weeks.

The site facilitators, a key component of the Say Yes Buffalo program, are responsible for working with chronically absent students who are in danger of failing and getting caught up in crime and abuse. Many ultimately become a drag on the county’s social services system, said Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert-Maurer and David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

“It makes all the sense in the world for the county to be doing this work,” said Rust, who also previously worked for the county as a deputy social services commissioner.

Dankert-Maurer said the county applied for and received additional state grant money earmarked for preventive services. That money – $619,000 – will be added to $379,000 from Say Yes to fund the 14 site facilitator positions.

That means 34 of 55 schools will have facilitators working with counselors, psychologists and others to keep struggling students in school this year. Assuming no funding snags in future years, the county should continue to partner with Say Yes to provide more site facilitators until every school has one by 2015-16, Rust said.

Catholic Charities and the United Way are also funding site facilitator positions.

In addition to this financial commitment, the county will play an important administrative role in the expansion of 14 satellite mental health clinics in Buffalo schools. There are currently eight such clinics in Buffalo schools, open on a limited basis. But starting next fall, Erie County will partner with Say Yes to expand mental health services to 14 more high-needs schools within the district.

Any mental health services provided to students and their families by the clinics would be covered by student and family health insurance, including Medicaid, not through additional county money, officials said.

Nine outside human services agencies would run the clinics, Rust said.

The county, however, will be responsible for the oversight, monitoring and data collection required as part of the expansion effort. “It’s an example of investing a little time and money to save on mental health services down the line,” Poloncarz said.

County officials said Say Yes approached them about offering more support to Buffalo students.

“We weren’t certain we could,” Poloncarz said. But ultimately, he said, Say Yes worked with the county to come up with a way of providing more assistance to the Buffalo school district without costing the county more money. “This will not be adding any dollars to the county’s operating budget,” he added.

The county used to fund school nurses for the Buffalo school district but ended that practice under County Executive Joel Giambra after the red-and-green budget fiasco, said Deputy County Executive Richard Tobe.

Given the dominant role Erie County plays in providing health and human services to county residents, however, it only make for the county government to try to reach students and families sooner.

Dankert-Maurer pointed to research that shows a student’s long-term success or failure in school is determined by third grade. That makes early intervention important, she said.

“We, as a community, have to reverse that,” she said.

email: stan@buffnews.com