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Accountabilityby Mark Reutter9:18 amApr 29, 20210

High hopes and pressing questions as Baltimore Children and Youth Fund comes before the Council

The BCYF will report today on its progress to fund and foster youth programs amid scarce documentation about how it has spent taxpayer money

Above: Promotional flyer for the BCYF. (bcyfund.org)

For those wondering how a fund created to bypass entrenched city funders and channel money to grassroots, youth-focused organizations is faring, a City Council hearing scheduled this evening may offer some clues.

Approved by voters in 2016 following the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore Children and Youth Fund continues to grow in size. Over the last four years, the fund has collected more than $50 million in revenues, drawing 3 cents from every $100 of taxed property value in the city.

But how the money has been dispensed – and how programs ranging from dance troupes to after-school tutoring have helped children in underserved communities – is far from clear, says Melissa Schober, a policy analyst who has written extensively about the fund.

“The fiscal workings of BCYF remain off limits to the taxpayers who approved it,” she says.

Even basic programmatic information also is not readily available.

“We still don’t know the total number of children served” by the fund, according to Schober, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 22,000 out of the estimated 138,000 city residents who are 19 or younger.

Guardian Dance Company (below) is one of the 80-plus groups that have received grants from the Youth Fund. (guardianbaltimore.com)

Guardian Dance (below) is one of the 80-plus groups that have received grants from the Youth Fund. (guardianbaltimore.com)

guardian dance

In an analysis published in Medium, Schober reviews the principles embraced by the fund’s creators – that it be led by youth voices, advance equity, inspire new approaches to philanthropy, and act with urgency.

She questions how well they have delivered on those goals.

“Urgency was enshrined in the BCYF’s values, but policy and value without practice means little,” she wrote. “Expediency for Baltimore’s children was the watchword, until it wasn’t.”

Problems, Progress

BCYF’s communications team is expected to present details at tonight’s virtual hearing before the Education, Workforce and Youth Committee of the City Council.

Listen to the hearing, which starts at 5 p.m. today, through this link.

Success stories of groups funded by the organization will be highlighted at the hearing, along with the group’s guiding principles of addressing racial disparities and elevating youth leadership.

The presentation will be the first public hearing covering the activities of Baltimore Children and Youth Fund Inc., the new nonprofit that took over as fund manager from Associated Black Charities (ABC) last July.

ABC had a rocky tenure as the fund’s first fiscal agent.

It became embroiled in Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” scandal, having paid $80,000 to Baltimore’s former mayor in return for copies of her books, and was faulted by City Auditor Josh Pasch for awarding 19 funds to grantees who scored lowered than 40 groups that did not receive grants.

ABC’s president, Diane Bell-McKoy, rejected the criticism. She boycotted a Board of Estimates meeting after Comptroller Joan Pratt refused to amend the audit report, and she later told the City Council that “you can’t do a big, huge fund and huge innovation and not have mistakes.”

An early organization chart for the grant-making and administration of Children and Youth Fund monies. (abc-md.org)

Some of the administrators and consultants who handled the first round of $9.6 million of Youth Fund money. (abc-md.org)

Complex Structure

Associated Black Charities was sunsetted as interim fiscal agent last July 1. The replacement, BCYF Inc., was incorporated by Kera Ritter and Danielle Torain, who were the fund’s co-directors under McKoy. (Ritter remains at BCYF Inc., while Torain is now executive director of the Open Society Institute Baltimore.)

Under legislation passed by the City Council last year, BCYF Inc. is governed by an eight-member “transition board” chaired by Dion Cartwright, who works at The Funders Network.

The transition board is “responsible for ensuring an orderly and effective transition from the interim fiscal agent [ABC] to the permanent fiscal agent” and will be phased out by December 31, 2021 upon approval of the Board of Estimates.

A succeeding permanent board will consist of at least nine, and no more than 20, members, according to the legislation.

One third of the seats will be reserved for youth between 14 and 25, unless the Board of Estimates finds that the board took reasonable efforts to comply with the requirement and failed.

The current board appears to have no members 25 or younger; a representative of the fund yesterday refused to discuss its membership, saying any media questions will be answered after today’s Council hearing.

Since July, the interim board has been meeting every other month for about an hour. Here is an excerpt from its latest posted minutes, coming from its November 18, 2020 video conference:

An excerpt from the latest minutes posted by the interim board, dating from its November 2020 virtual meeting. (bcyfund.org)

Opaque Finances

What’s been consistent since 2017 is the lack of financial information coming from the fund’s administrators.

In 2018, 84 organizations (out of 488 applicants) received $9.6 million in grants from the fund.

In February 2020, 78 organizations (four groups had dropped out and two others were “dis-invited” from reapplying) received “continuation grants” of $9.2 million through April 2021, as noted by John Morris in the above board minutes.

This indicates that $18.8 million has so far been spent on direct programming for youth services and activities.

Other than reporting administrative costs of about $2.4 million, the BCYF has not released any documentation.

No publicly available financial records are on its website, no budgets, no cost allocation reports, no subcontracts for the battery of consultants and advisors (Urban Policy Development, Frontline Solutions, Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Fund for Educational Excellence) that have been employed by the fund.

The Brew has requested financial information from BCYF as well as the city Finance Department, which collects the property tax set-aside for the fund and makes quarterly distributions to the program.

No material has been forthcoming.

$9 Million Diverted

In addition to distributing $18.8 million to grantees, the City Council and mayor’s office dipped into the fund and removed $9 million to underwrite two Covid-related programs.

City Schools received $3 million to help buy Chromebooks for students faced with taking virtual classes from home, while $6 million was allocated for $400 debit cards to families who need grocery and household supplies.

As noted in The Brew, the cards have largely been put to good use. But preliminary data also indicate that the debit card program does not especially serve the needs of young people.

So far, 76% of card recipients are over the age of 29, according to the Mayor’s Office of Children and Family Success, which co-administers the debit card program with the Open Society Institute.

• To reach this reporter: reuttermark@yahoo.com

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