Wednesday, May 23 , 2018, 3:28 pm | Overcast 66º


Schools’ Class-Cutting Prevention Program on Chopping Block

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors wants school districts to pay half the cost; so far, the Santa Barbara School Board is noncommittal.

Come fall, playing hooky without hassle from adults could become easier for students in the Santa Barbara School District and others across the county, thanks to the poor economy.

The county-funded truancy prevention program has been sliced from the 2008-09 budget by the cash-starved Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. But it’s not over yet. The supervisors — whose budget has been depleted by skyrocketing retirement costs and a slowdown in the housing market — have indicated that they would restore the truancy program if local school districts agree to pay for half of it.

This past week, leaders of the truancy program, who work out of the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, began traveling to school districts to ask school boards to commit.

The leaders started Tuesday with the Santa Barbara School District, which has been a part of the program for 11 years. Ultimately, the school board, which is also experiencing dire financial straits, held its cards close by putting off a decision until August.

The countywide truancy program is made up of three administrators and three social workers, along with some clerical staff. The department, which comes with an annual price tag of about $658,000, spends its 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 don’t comply.

The department’s involvement begins with a warning letter after three unexcused absences. If the class-cutting persists, the department deploys a social worker to set up meetings with the student, his or her parents and an assistant principal. If all else fails, the department puts students on probation. Parents can be fined, and even briefly jailed. 

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 touted as being low because of its concentrated efforts.

Speaking to the Santa Barbara School Board on Tuesday, Caroline Anderson, supervisor of the DA’s truancy program, said the loss of the program ultimately would lead to higher rates of crime, gang involvement, dropouts and unemployment, and cost the schools more money because of declining attendance.

“In these troubled times, with juvenile crime and everything else going on, I just believe it would be a shame,” she said. “It would be the wrong time to get rid of such an important program.”

The truancy officials claimed that their department saved the Santa Barbara School District about $280,000 by dissuading most of those 2,500 students in grades seven through 12 from cutting more classes. (Most public schools receive money from the state based on average daily attendance.) 

Specifically, they asked the Santa Barbara School Board for an annual commitment of $64,000, which would cover about half of the cost to run Santa Barbara’s portion of the program.

The Santa Barbara School Board members had little to say about the presentation, other than that they value the program but are strapped for cash. The truancy officials said the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors wants an answer by September. 

Brian Sarvis, Santa Barbara schools superintendent, said he has sent a letter to Santa Barbara County District Attorney Christie Stanley articulating the district’s dilemma.

“Gosh, we value the program, don’t want to see it go away, but we just made $4 million in cuts,” he said Tuesday night. “In order to find that money, we’d have to make more cuts, which puts us in a real bind.”

Resident Karolyn Renard, an attorney who often represents the families of students up for expulsion, spoke to the board in opposition of the program, saying the district attorney’s office shouldn’t be involved in truancy matters because it criminalizes students who miss school.

“It doesn’t serve your students well,” she said, adding that one of the district’s former assistant superintendents once called the program ineffective. “It doesn’t even work.”

Last year in the district, Santa Barbara High School sent out by far the highest number of first letters: 956. Next was San Marcos High School, which sent out 664, but San Marcos had by far the highest number of students who were prosecuted: 13. Next was La Cuesta Continuation High School with five students prosecuted. Only three students were prosecuted at each Dos Pueblos and Santa Barbara high schools.

Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at [email protected]

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