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Just as school begins, Pinellas truancy programs face a cut

A counselor with a program within the Juvenile Welfare Board was instrumental in helping Terry and Barbara McKinnon’s grand-daughters. One of the grand­daughters had planned to drop out, but changed her mind.

BRIAN BLANCO | Special to the Times

A counselor with a program within the Juvenile Welfare Board was instrumental in helping Terry and Barbara McKinnon’s grand-daughters. One of the grand­daughters had planned to drop out, but changed her mind.

Barbara McKinnon can't believe local officials are getting ready to slash funding for the counselor who spent months working with her 16-year-old twin granddaughters, even tracking them down when they were skipping school.

She's grateful to the Family Resources antitruancy program because "I think without it, they'd have been dropouts." As to the counselor who got her granddaughters to give high school another try, she said, "To do away with his position is insane."

But Pinellas County's Juvenile Welfare Board is about to vote to cut $766,000 that finances three truancy programs, just as the new school year starts.

This is one painful blow to families like the McKinnons and the people who work with them. But it's also part of a bigger story about the sagging economy and the changing ways government agencies do business.

The Juvenile Welfare Board says it has no choice but to cut programs. Because property values have crashed, the board doesn't generate as much money from taxes.

But looking deeper, the board's staff says it would likely cut these programs anyway.

It's not that Family Resources, the Sixth Judicial Circuit and the city of St. Petersburg — all of whom run truancy programs — aren't doing some good work, the board says.

"They're fine folks and they're dedicated to the kids," Juvenile Welfare Board executive director Gay Lancaster said. "I'm not saying the programs don't do their utmost to serve."

But the board's research shows that not enough kids in the truancy program actually stop skipping school, she and others said.

Of 235 youths who went through the Family Resources or Sixth Circuit truancy programs in 2009-2010, one-third had 20 or more unexcused absences within the next 90 days, and another third had between one and 20 unexcused absences, officials said

The results aren't good enough, said longtime board member Bob Dillinger, who also is Pinellas-Pasco public defender. Added Lancaster: "We want to know that what we're doing is making a difference."

The Juvenile Welfare Board was established in the 1940s to support children's programs, and was given the power to raise money through a property tax. But when property values decrease, the same tax rate raises less money.

This year the board will probably increase the tax rate, but raise roughly the same amount of money as last year — an estimated $44.7 million toward its $55.9 million budget.

Over the years, the board has worked to make sure it can prove the agencies it funds are actually improving children's lives. "That has taken some time, but we now are at that point," Dillinger said. "So programs that don't perform get cut."

"That's really why the board chose to do something different with respect to truancy programs," Lancaster said. She said the number of students who were still getting unexcused absences after the program were simply too high.

Others say the calculation is not so simple.

"There was a small handful of kids, where we had no impact," said Jane Harper, president and chief executive of Family Resources. But the vast majority of kids in its program greatly reduced the number of days they missed school, she said.

In fact, more than half of the students who went through the program missed fewer than five days afterward — "just short of miraculous," said Family Resources executive Pat Gerard, considering several had missed months of school before the program.

Family Resources and the board are working to make sure students in the programs now continue to get help.

To Barbara McKinnon, the numbers don't matter as much as the change she sees at home. One of her granddaughters had planned to drop out, but changed her mind. Both girls began regularly going to school, although they did persist in missing their first-period classes. "It saved our lives this year," McKinnon said.

Chief Pinellas-Pasco Judge Thomas McGrady said in a letter to the Juvenile Welfare Board that he understood, with all the budget problems, why it might need to cut truancy programs. But he did make one request:

"Please do not indicate that they are being recommended for defunding because they are failing. I do not believe that the data supports that; I feel only that we have insufficient data to assess its level of success."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8232.

. FAST FACTS

About the cut

The cut to the truancy program is part of the Juvenile Welfare Board's proposed $55.9 million 2011-12 budget. The budget also calls for an increase in the property tax rate. The rate would increase from 79.15 cents per $1,000 of assessed, taxable valuation to 83.37 cents per $1,000. Public hearings on these rates will be conducted at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 8 and 14 at 14155 58th St. N, Suite 100, near Largo.

Just as school begins, Pinellas truancy programs face a cut 08/13/11 [Last modified: Saturday, August 13, 2011 9:16pm]
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