Project Safety Net always had heart. Now, it's preparing to add a backbone.
The Palo Alto City Council enthusiastically approved on Monday night a new vision for the broad collaborative, which which was formed in 2009 in response to a cluster of teenager suicides. The vision calls for more data, a more focused agenda and a "backbone" structure of paid staff, including a new executive director.
Though council acknowledged that the vision remains a bit blurry at this time, members agreed that a transition to a more formal structure is needed. Though the collaborative attracted participation from dozens of mental-health experts and organizations, the last few years have been marred by uncertainty and confusion. Two directors have recently resigned in rapid succession after brief stints, and council members, while praising Project Safety Net, have expressed their own concern about the fact that most of its funding and much of its staffing is supplied by the city.
On Monday night, as the City Council approved its budget for fiscal year 2016, members unanimously agreed to increase funding to the collaborative, with the understanding that the money will be used to transition Project Safety Net into a more independent and data-driven collaborative. Using a new model called "collective impact," the partnership will develop a clear roadmap with measurable goals and staffing that is independent of the city. To date, much of the work in coordinating meetings has fallen to Rob de Geus, director of Community Services, and Minka van der Zwaag, the manager of the city's Office of Human Services.
Recognizing the recent struggles to attract and retain a leader for the group, the council agreed Monday to include in the budget $198,458 for a new director, which was $80,000 more than was previously budgeted for staffing.
The council's decision followed a June 9 recommendation from its Policy and Services Committee. De Geus told the committee at that meeting there are various models that Project Safety Net can potentially adopt, including Communities That Care, Positive Community Norms, and Healthy Communities. Each offers a different approach for bringing stakeholders together to address a social problem. The coalition landed on collective impact as the model after months of deliberation because it "fit well with the work we're doing here in Palo Alto," de Geus said.
Collective impact occurs when "organizations from different sectors agree to solve a specific social problem using a common agenda, align their efforts and using common measures of success," he said.
"We think this model will create great accountability, strengthen alignment of activities across the sector of the 30-some organizations as part of this collaborative and sharpen our communication and understanding," de Geus said.
While the council agreed to continue to fund Project Safety Net for the coming year, its long-term sustainability is far less certain. City officials have been adamant about the need for the Palo Alto Unified School District to assist with funding. City Manager James Keene said Monday that he discussed the topic last week with school district Superintendent Max McGee.
Keene characterized the city's contributions for Project Safety Net as "seed money to jumpstart an ongoing program.
"We've got to get sustainable funding resources, including from other partners, to carry this program forward," Keene said.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss also called for more cost sharing between the city and the school district. So far, Project Safety Net has supported by a fund that was designated for health and safety programs as part of the city's development agreement with the Stanford University Medical Center. The fund, which initially totaled $4 million, will dip to $764,000 by the end of the coming fiscal year, Keene said.
"I hope we will move in the direction of sharing the cost of this entire program, either with the school district or others who are interested," Kniss said. "This fund is not a bottomless pit, so it will be necessary for us to share this endeavor with others."
In addition to upping its spending on staff, the council agreed on Monday to spend more than $315,000 on security along the tracks. The program, known as Track Watch, pays for guards to patrol road crossings and stations on the Caltrain corridor. Councilman Pat Burt, who chairs the Policy and Services Committee, made the case for continuing to fund Track Watch.
"As expensive as it is, this has been a vital component in providing security on the tracks that has made real difference to date," Burt said. "Despite its expense, I don't see a choice but for us to provide that service."
Project Safety Net will hold a meeting on Thursday, June 18, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the Matadero Room of Mitchell Park Community Center, 3700 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. The meeting is open to the public, but organizers request an RVSP to Tanya Schornack at firstname.lastname@example.org.