Truancy rates have increased since Santa Barbara County discontinued its program because of funding issues, the Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury determined in its latest report.

It recommends that the District Attorney’s Office, the County Education Office and school districts work together to fund and organize the program again, which held truancy rates — being absent without permission — to about 20 percent from 1997 to 2008.

According to the state Department of Education statistics, Santa Barbara County truancy rates were at 31 percent, out of 65,382 students, for the 2009-10 school year. Those numbers include all students who were absent or tardy without a valid excuse three times or more in the school year. California’s truancy rate was 28 percent last year.

The Grand Jury report states that there’s a significant correlation between the level of education and unemployment, and that truancy can severely impact a student’s ability to get enough credits to graduate.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors denied funding and told staff to discontinue the program if school districts didn’t contribute funding, so it ended Sept. 30, 2008. The program would have needed $226,900 in funding for the 2009-10 year, according to records.

Most enforcement of truants only went so far as sending a letter to the parents, records show. While 69,169 letters were sent out in the life of the program, only 1,939 students made it past other interventions to the School Attendance Review Board hearing stage, where punitive and legal action was considered.

After being elected last year, District Attorney Joyce Dudley said she would implement a new, proactive program but has been hindered by lack of funding, she has told Noozhawk. She has no doubt that the crime rate will go down if children stay in school and said a truancy program is absolutely necessary for the county. However, in April, she told school districts that her office wouldn’t be able to prosecute truancy-related infractions because of staffing issues.

The County Education Office has said individual districts were considered better equipped to handle the family involvement so the countywide program was eliminated, but the Grand Jury disagrees in its report and doesn’t accept financial troubles as an excuse.

“There currently is no federal or state funding available to address school truancy,” the report states. “There needs to be a way to fund an effective truancy program, either by the reallocation of existing funds and/or a cost-sharing arrangement between the school districts and the County of Santa Barbara.”

It recommends that the county fund one full-time position to organize the program, that districts pay in proportionate to their student populations and that the County Education Office match what the districts chip in.

In the meantime, the DA’s Office is urged to start sending out letters to parents of truants immediately, even while the rest of the program is developed. Dudley plans to do so, and hopes funding can be found “to help us do this excellent means of crime prevention.”

All named parties — including the DA’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, the County Education Office and county school districts — have 60 to 90 days to respond to the report.

Click here to read the report in its entirety. Click here to read Noozhawk’s story about the Santa Barbara School District’s efforts to build a truancy program.

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.