A program that many say has kept tens of thousands of Duval kids who were suspended from school off city streets and focused on school work has fallen into a funding tug-of-war.
On opposite sides of the rope are the city of Jacksonville, which pays most of the program costs now, and Duval Public Schools, which pays about a third of it.
With crime numbers and student suspensions down and graduation rates on the rise, the debate among local leaders isn’t whether to keep the suspension program going, but who is going to pay for it in the long run.
Who wins that debate could affect the scope of one successful program and potentially affect the balance of funding of other community and school partnerships.
So far, polite discussion and negotiations between city and district leaders may result in the district sharing at least half the costs next year, but with both the city and the district facing tight budgets, neither is eager to pay the entire, nearly $1 million bill for the suspension program.
Robin Lumb, an at-large city council member from District 5, says Jacksonville’s local tax revenues shouldn’t be paying for this program, especially not now, when the city is holding the line on police and fire costs and cutting $250,000 from Meals on Wheels.
Kids on suspension, he says, are the district’s problem.
“The School Board has a tough row to hoe, but money is so tight these days, I’d like to make sure we’ve got the tab [for the program] divvied up right,” he said.
But advocates like W.C. Gentry, a former School Board member who served on the city’s oversight committee for that program and others, said the city is obligated to pay for it, since the city benefits most when kids are deflected from mischief and crime into a supervised environment.
“The school district is within its right to kick these kids out of school, even though it’s not always a good thing to do,” Gentry said. “But to ask the school district to put millions into a program started by the city — and that directly benefits the city through crime prevention and intervention — is just not fair.”
AN ANSWER TO CRIME
The program in question is called the Alternative to Truancy and Out of School Suspension, or ATOSS.
It launched in spring 2009 as one of a host of city-sponsored anti-crime measures that included investments in police, youth, returning criminal offenders and youngsters living in low-income communities. The broad-ranging programs were all part of the Jacksonville Journey, a community-led response to Jacksonville’s high violent crime rates.
ATOSS, one of the Journey’s highest-profile solutions, was a way to remove suspended kids from school without removing them from learning. It has handled nearly 32,000 suspension days for middle and high school students for a variety of infractions — from fighting, to repeated incidents of disrupting class or defying teachers. (Some students served multiple suspension days, so they’re included in that number multiple times.)
Instead of putting kids out of school, potentially unsupervised and likely falling behind on classwork, ATOSS’ five centers each employ a teacher, social worker and police officer or guard to supervise, tutor and coach suspended students. Students’ regular teachers are supposed to send classwork and assignments, or students work online while suspended. Then they return to school caught up with their peers.
Another advantage: ATOSS students are not counted as suspended, bringing down suspension rates for the district. Before, some disruptive students were not suspended because suspensions counted against a school’s performance.
But parents sometimes decline to send their suspended child to ATOSS. According to monthly oversight reports, about 82 percent of students referred to the program enrolled in it.
There were no reasons listed in the monthly oversight reports for some parents’ decision to decline sending students to ATOSS. Several staff members in the program, however, said parents had transportation problems. The district provided busing in more recent years.
Nikolai Vitti, Duval schools superintendent, said that the district pays for ATOSS teachers, meals, much of the security and transportation. If it has to shoulder more of the program’s costs, it may reduce what it spends on other community programs.
He told the School Board recently to expect state school funding to grow only 1 to 2 percent next year. The district’s budget is about $1.7 billion.
The program at first was projected to cost about $2 million and to handle up to 27,000 suspensions a year. (That’s the total number of students attending the suspension centers each day, totaled for the school year.)
On average, the five ATOSS centers serve about 626 students a month.
For a program that has cost the city $826,000 to $1.5 million a year to run, Gentry said, it is a bargain. He said suspended students who stay on track with work tend not to return to ATOSS and are less likely to drop out and get into crime.
“It probably has been the most effective program … that directly correlated to crime and youth,” Gentry said.
Before ATOSS, law enforcement leaders linked Jacksonville’s high truancy and suspension numbers — up to 150 kids a day, totaling up to 50,000 suspensions a year — to rising numbers of car and home break-ins, vandalism and other crimes.
For each year of ATOSS, authorities have reported falling crime. Overall crime is at a 41-year low, with property crimes expected to show another decline in 2013 data, said Lauri-Ellen Smith, special assistant to the sheriff.
Juvenile arrests have fallen 41 percent, from 3,919 in the 2006-07 school year before ATOSS to 2,302 in the 2012-13 school year, she said.
ATOSS was one of many anti-crime programs here.
“We believe ATOSS is a part of that success, as a component of an overall strategy of addressing juvenile crime,” Smith said.
Crime on the whole has been trending downward across the country for much of the past decade, but ticked up again in 2012.
PROS AND CONS
ATOSS has had its stumbles. It started later than planned in the 2008-09 school year, handling its first students in May. The following fall, schools referred only a few students, prompting the city’s oversight committee to tie funds to center use — withholding some money if the centers operate below 95 percent capacity.
Questions persist about whether it’s needed, especially since Duval has instituted other programs to handle discipline problems, including in-school suspension programs.
Chris Guerrieri, a Jacksonville teacher and blogger, questions why ATOSS centers need to be outside of schools. He recommends that Duval schools toughen the penalties for in-school suspension and use what it would spend on ATOSS to hire more social workers at schools.
“I do like the idea that kids sent to them can see counselors and social workers, but that is a service schools should provide more of, because often why a kid acts up in school has nothing to do with school,” he said.
Nevertheless, ATOSS has won over some of its students.
Tianna Lee, an 18-year-old senior who was suspended three days for fighting, said last week that she has struggled to pay attention and behave in school but at the ATOSS in the Bridge of Northeast Florida location she benefited from personal attention and a lack of “drama.”
“At first I thought it was boring and that they weren’t going to help me,” she said. “But at ATOSS it’s quiet and you can get your work done.”
Erika Jones, who graduated from Andrew Jackson High in 2013, said she was assigned to the program three separate times, each time for fighting.
“It was punishment for me because you’re in one room all day,” she said, but the staff “helped me change my behavior … so I avoided suspension my senior year.”
She also pulled up her grades, graduated and is a sophomore at Florida State College at Jacksonville studying business.
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083