Carmen Butcher, a family intervention specialist with the Touchstone program, recently helped a fourth-grader deal with a problem. The girl had a bad habit of stealing things, so Butcher arranged counseling and created an action plan for the girl and her family. Without Butcher's help, the next intervention could have come in court. And if a preliminary county budget is approved, the program that Butcher works for, as well as many others, might not exist for families in need of assistance.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners must cut $15 million from the county budget. On the chopping block are school-based health and mental health services, summer hours at high school clinics, Touchstone and a pregnancy prevention program and child care slots at Roosevelt High School.
Last year, it was the popular Schools Uniting Neighborhoods program that was in danger, and then newly elected County Commission Chairman Ted Wheeler stepped in. But saving the program has come at a price.
The 2008 budget does not include funding for programs many in the community see as essential – among those facing an uncertain future are school-based health clinics, mental health services for elementary and middle schools and the anti-poverty Touchstone program.
Of particular concern to some is Touchstone, which is a direct social service provider under SUN's umbrella. Touchstone is a voluntary, school-based program that helps break down the barriers many at-risk students face. Working with families, the program provides access to resources, acts as an advocate and many other services that can't be quantified, says Butcher, who works at Woodlawn and Humboldt elementary schools, two of the 41 schools Touchstone services.
"They can't put a number on the people we have touched," she said.
Without the program, many families will have no safety net, no one to assist them with social services and no one to find out why a child isn't attending school, Butcher says. And with a caseload that comprises 70 percent families of color, Butcher said cutting the program would devastate Multnomah County's minority population.
"We have to do something," she said. "Our kids are in more trouble now than they ever have been."
Wheeler: Prioritized SUN program
Wheeler says he doesn't relish cutting social service programs, but that having a $15 million budget shortfall forced his hand.
"The Touchstone program was not singled out, nor were any other programs," Wheeler said.
In an effort to save the entire SUN program, Wheeler said it was necessary to cut something out of the budget.
"This is not a statement either about the program or the people we employ on that program," he said. "As we looked at the array of school-based services … I prioritized saving the SUN program."
Nothing will be set in stone until June 7, when the Board of Commissioners is set to vote on a final budget. Wheeler also set aside $500,000 to design an alternative to the Touchstone program, one that would presumably be cheaper to operate. The Coordinating Council is currently looking into the Touchstone redesign, and it is unclear what the future program might look like.
The schools will also have an opportunity to save Touchstone – Wheeler set aside $2.1 million in unanticipated tax revenues generated from late payments from the now expired county income tax. While the money has yet to be collected, it could provide needed funding for the expiring programs.
"(The schools) could use those dollars to save Touchstone," he said.
Governor's Healthy Kids Act could help
School officials say it isn't as simple as Wheeler makes it sound to save the Touchstone program. Willie Poinsette, PPS' chief officer for student, family and school support, says when the late income tax payments come in, multiple school district and county programs will compete for the funds, estimated at more than $1.1 million for Portland alone. Over time, Portland Public Schools have had to cut a variety of programs due to past budget cuts. The School Board will have to decide whether to fund the county programs like Touchstone or fund Portland Public School initiatives.
"There are some difficult choices," Poinsette said. "Do you maintain school-based health clinics and let go of Touchstone?"
Commissioner Jeff Cogan, who represents Northeast Portland, has been seeking solutions to the funding crunch, and believes he has solved at least one part of the problem. If funding for school-based health systems can continue through 2008 — with a one-time payment of $1.2 million — he says there is good reason to believe Gov. Ted Kulongoski's Healthy Kids Act will help reimburse most of the program's cost to the county.
"I thought I saw a real viable strategy to save school-based health clinics," Cogen said, cautioning that dismantling a much-needed health system only to restart it a short time later would be costly and unproductive.
As for other programs such as Touchstone, Cogan said the commission has been searching out alternative funding sources – from the school districts themselves to federal or private foundation grants – to help save services that have proven their effectiveness.
"Even that will be a challenge," he said.
Adding to that challenge is an additional $15 to $25 million in county budget cuts that could come next year.
"It's not enough to say Touchstone is important, we have to come up with a viable strategy for it," Cogen said.
Community members show support
A budget meeting held earlier this week at the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization building showed the support Touchstone has in the community.
More than 200 people attended the budget meeting and 67 people testified in support of Touchstone, school-based health clinics and culturally specific programs. The ethnically diverse crowd, which included natives from Africa to Eastern Europe, spoke out for commissioners to save school-based, anti-poverty health and cultural programs.
Butcher, the family intervention specialist, says she doesn't believe Touchstone will be saved. When her Touchstone family asks what will happen next, Butcher tells them the truth.
"I don't know," she says.
The next meeting open to public testimony on the 2008 Multnomah County budget will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 22 at the Multnomah Building, Boardroom 100, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Boulevard.