Local school officials across Santa Barbara County can say goodbye to the 11-year-old truancy intervention program designed to dissuade students from playing hooky before resorting to more punitive legal options.

Faced with a historically dire budget situation, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors cut the program Tuesday in a narrow 3-2 vote.

The countywide truancy program had been made up of three administrators and three social workers, along with some clerical staff. Run out of the district attorney’s office, the program, which came with an annual price tag of about $658,000, spent time working with class cutters and their parents to try to dissuade the students from skipping school, gradually turning up the heat on those who didn’t comply.

The department’s involvement began with a warning letter after three unexcused absences. If the class-cutting persisted, the department would deploy a social worker to set up meetings with the student, his or her parents and an assistant principal. If all else failed, the department would put students on probation. 

In the Santa Barbara district, about 1 percent of the 2,500 students who received a warning letter in the 2007-08 school year were prosecuted, a statistic the truancy department has touted as being low because of its concentrated efforts.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Christie Stanley implored the board to support a stripped-down version of the program, asking for $166,000, which would have kept the program alive until the end of the school year. But it wasn’t to be.

Earlier this year, the Board of Supervisors had threatened to cut the program entirely, unless the individual school districts that benefit — such as the K-12 Santa Barbara School Districts — could commit to paying for half.

The program was funded through September to give the DA officials time to tour individual school districts and ask for a financial commitment. With few exceptions, they came away empty-handed, in no small part because most school districts are facing similar budget woes.

However, some school districts — such as the Santa Maria elementary and high school districts — offered the support of in-kind services, meaning those districts would divvy up some of the duties with existing staff. Stanley estimated this to be worth the equivalent of more than $250,000.

Stanley added that she understands the board’s budget predicament. “I’m not blind or deaf. I sat and listened today to all of the economic issues,” she said. “There probably couldn’t be worse timing for this. I’m just here because I think it’s important, and I’ll leave this tough decision to you.”

Supervisors Brooks Firestone and Joni Gray were sold.

Firestone argued that it makes good financial sense to ensure that more students complete school and become productive members of society, as opposed to paying later to take care of people who go “astray.”

“Frankly, that’s a good investment,” he said.

Firestone said he was also impressed by how Stanley waited for hours in the Santa Maria board room while the supervisors conducted other business before making her case.

“That has moved me to support this,” he said. “It must be really effective and important to them; otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone through the trouble.”

But Supervisors Janet Wolf, Salud Carbajal and Joe Centeno couldn’t bring themselves to support the proposal, saying this year’s financial outlook is too bleak.

For instance, they said, children’s clinics this year must stay closed over the holidays because of the budget crisis. And county employees are being asked to accept a furlough to help make ends meet.

“It’s not that it’s not a good thing to do, or the right thing to do, but there are so many other right things to do,” Wolf said.

Centeno said he would entertain the idea of a yes vote only if he heard a commitment on behalf of school districts that they would start paying for the program after this school year.

At this, Dave Francis, superintendent of the Santa Maria-Bonita elementary school district — who attended the meeting to show support for the proposal along with Jeff Hearn, superintendent of the Santa Maria High School District — said he couldn’t make such a promise.

“Our financial future is very precarious as it stands today,” he said.

Centeno then said he felt like he had received his answer.

Just after the vote, Carbajal offered an apologetic compliment to Stanley. “You do a great job,” he said. “This is just a difficult time.”

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at rkuznia@noozhawk.com.