Although both the Scarsdale Village and Scarsdale School District budgets have passed for the 2022-23 fiscal year, Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service has requested an additional $18,000 from each to further empower the Community Youth Services Project (CYSP) to help Scarsdale students with their social-emotional wellness and mental health needs.
Scarsdale Edgemont Family Counseling Service (SFCS) Executive Director Jay Genova made his pitch to the Scarsdale schools administration and board of education in a private June 17 meeting, and addressed the village board Tuesday, July 12, during a work session dedicated to his request.
The request for a modification to the previously submitted CYSP budget, a program that does not generate revenue and is split equally between the village and the district, was “unusual,” Genova said, noting, “Drivers to this request kind of follow the state of affairs and the state of the world in which we are in, in particular the difficulties recruiting staff into positions.”
Genova said the “challenge across industries” — for-profit and not-for-profit — is hitting the social work and mental health profession when it comes to attracting and retaining employees long term. Genova noted that social work/mental health work is historically the third lowest-paying profession — journalism is also in the top three — despite the importance and positive impact the work can have on a community.
Many in the field — and others — left the work force during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others went into private practice where they could charge five or six times the hourly fee, while newcomers have higher salary expectations.
SFCS employees make an 11% contribution to their health care, get 5% of their salary put into a 403B Plan out of the SFCS budget and have the option to get life insurance. They also get vacation and personal days.
Scarsdale Trustee Karen Brew asked if the benefits were on par with other organizations, but Genova said most have been swallowed by larger organizations like Mental Health Association of Westchester and Westchester Jewish Community Services since he began in the field 30 years ago.
“We are one of the last independent not-for-profit family counseling agencies that remain intact that serves the community that it was identified to serve, and so to make comparison would be challenging because there aren’t many like us in existence,” Genova said.
Scarsdale Mayor Jane Veron said the Nonprofit Westchester Board, of which she is a member, is working on a “salary and benefit benchmarking” study, since the information doesn’t exist, and expects to have some answers in the next six months.
Genova said the one-time increase would help SFCS become “more competitive” in the market and continue to offer the same services to students. Genova wants to be able to offer annual cost-of-living increases and reward employees with step increases for every three years they stay with the agency. The longtime employees he’s had in recent years stayed because they “loved” the community and the work, but he said that was “not sustainable” as an expectation in hiring going forward.
Genova estimated the school district, which dedicated a significant amount of money in the latest budget to mental health needs — $450,000 for two mental health workers at the high school and middle school — hired social workers at $50,000 more than SFCS can pay, though he noted the district hired professionals with 15 or more years of experience. While Genova is used to hiring social workers with three to five years’ experience, who then stay an average of nine years, that is no longer the case. He said he is getting résumés from less-experienced social workers who need more training and support and are more likely to move to other positions sooner.
“This problem is a bit complicated by some decisions by the Scarsdale School District and their decisions to hire their own social work staff as district employees, which of course is their right and their decision to do. But the rates in which they are now recruiting and hiring those social workers are at salaries that are much, much higher than what we had been offering, which further complicates our situation,” Genova said.
Genova said he was happy to save “roughly” $3,700 from lower-than-expected unemployment costs from last year, and more importantly refunding $24,619 each to the village and district for positions that went unfilled the last two contract years.
“It is in good faith and in the spirit of partnership that we come before you today to both offer that credit as we had, but also now to respectfully request an increase,” Genova told the village board.
The overall SFCS budget is $1.3 million per year and the agency holds more than 5,000 counseling sessions annually. The original request for the CYSP was $521,524 ($260,762 each from the village and the school district). Genova’s request increases that to $556,000 ($278,250 each). That total drops to $253,631 each with the credit.
When asked by Brew if Genova had this conversation with the school district, Genova mentioned a June 17 meeting he had with interim Superintendent of Schools Drew Patrick, Assistant Superintendent for Special Education and Student Services Eric Rauschenbach, an unspecified board of education representative (Bob Klein), Deputy Mayor Randy Whitestone and Village Manager Rob Cole in which the district gave “verbal agreement” to the increase.
“In our June 17 meeting, Drew and I indicated administrative support for an increase; the recruitment and retention of high quality youth outreach workers is a shared interest,” Rauschenbach told the Inquirer Thursday. “We have reviewed the amount budgeted for the Youth Services Project since the June 17 meeting and there are sufficient funds budgeted to cover the increase Jay spoke about with the village. For context, the district's budget cycle is earlier than the village’s, so we have to estimate the cost of the Youth Services Project for the budget. Due to a period of time last year in which there was an open youth outreach worker, SFCS’s current proposed budget has a credit for that time. This credit was not included in the district’s budgeting, making the cost of the proposed youth services contract under the budgeted amount inclusive of the increase for personnel.”
Rauschenbach noted the board of education discussed the request for additional resources on July 1 at the reorganizational meeting. The board does not need to approve the additional amount, just to approve the overall contract when it is completed. The current contract with SFCS ends Aug. 31.
New school board president Amber Yusuf told the Inquirer that the district, the village and SFCS are still assessing needs for the contract.
“Please know that the board values our relationship with SFCS and appreciates the important work of the youth outreach workers that support our students,” Yusuf said. “We expect to discuss the contract with SFCS at a future board meeting.”
Genova and the school district have been working to figure out what the role of the new district social workers will be so there is no overlap in services and the two can provide as much as they can for students. The district’s social workers will be responsible for a majority of the “mandated counseling” that comes from the Committee for Special Education. Genova said he was pleased that the district recognized the need for more social workers “built into the infrastructure of the school district.”
Trustee Jonathan Lewis asked about Edgemont’s involvement in SFCS. Genova explained that some time between 2005 and 2012, when Genova had stepped away from SFCS, there was an attempt to replicate the program with Edgemont, which is in the town of Greenburgh. It was on the school to cover the cost and, after two years, Edgemont hired the social worker outright, so the partnership there no longer exists. However, Edgemont residents are able to utilize the agency through “fee for counseling services.”
In Scarsdale, Genova said middle school students in particular have had a rough time lately as they are less likely to have control of their lives and aren’t as able to communicate in a healthy way.
“In my opinion or from my observations, I would say that the mental health crisis preceded the COVID crisis,” Genova said. “We were seeing fairly steady increases in the demands of service both from the agency’s standpoint, meaning those that were requesting counseling services, as well as through the Youth Services Project for probably at least two years before the pandemic. The factors driving that [caused that] are debatable, but we definitely saw an increase in the numbers. In addition, what we saw primarily on the middle school level was an almost fourfold increase in the number of risk assessments that were needing to be completed.”
The risk assessments that were done for high school-level students were more likely to be as a result of a report of sexual assault, Genova said.
The pandemic served as “a magnifying glass on an already growing problem” of mental health issues, Genova said, adding “certainly we saw a significant increase in those who were feeling anxious or unsettled and people who were struggling with stabilizing any sense of personal safety or security. And so I looked at it as those who had low-level anxiety now have modest-level anxiety, those with modest-level anxiety now had high levels and those that previously had high levels were feeling fairly out of control.”
He continued: “The mental health crisis is real. I say that clearly and sincerely, and certainly our challenge has been to respond to the mental health crisis.”
Veron credited Genova for seeing the community through “an incredibly complicated time,” not only during the pandemic, but with unexpected high turnover. He “steadied the ship” and was able to “focus on the needs of the community.”
“Mr. Genova is a key and vital member of teams with respect to our police, fire and ambulance in concert with the school system,” Veron said. “One of the major thrusts of the work we’ve all been doing is to think proactively and not solely responsively, and he has been an incredibly vital, important resource for those conversations.”
Veron said she will reach out to the school district, but also wants to look at the longer-range needs of SFCS.
“The success of the agency is not only due to Jay and his staff, but a delicate balance between the schools and the village,” Whitestone said. “We have to figure out how to go forward on that basis so that we’re fully supportive, but we acknowledge that there have been changes.”