A citywide out-of-school suspension program that has helped keep juvenile crime in check in Duval County is getting the hot-potato treatment from some city and school leaders.
Some city council members have said they don’t want to continue shouldering most of the costs of ATOSS, or the Alternative to Out of School Suspension program, because they believe Duval Public Schools should pay for the program, which supervises and guides students during the day while they’re suspended from school.
The five ATOSS centers around the city cost about $1 million to operate; they served 6,090 students in 10,551 suspensions last year.
Duval Public Schools, on the other hand, has been emphasizing in-school suspensions so fewer students get sent home for misbehavior and instead are taught and counseled in special rooms at school by specially trained staff. In-school suspension cost the district $2.6 million or more last year, Duval officials said.
This year, Duval schools has committed to spending $213,000 for ATOSS, said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, not counting busing costs.
“ATOSS was never conceived as a district program; it was always a citywide program to address juvenile delinquency,” Vitti said. “I am very supportive of the program, but with our budget, I didn’t feel it needed to be funded at the scale that the city funds it.”
The matter is far from settled.
The City Council’s finance committee is expected to discuss ATOSS and other crime-prevention programs under the Jacksonville Journey umbrella next Thursday. Jacksonville Journey, which oversees a variety of crime-prevention programs, voted last week to ask the city for $826,000 in funding for ATOSS, about what was spent last year.
Some council members said they’ll go along with flat funding it for this year.
“I think that’s prudent budgeting under financial pressure,” said John Crescimbeni, a finance committee member.
But others say they are inclined to reduce ATOSS funding, especially if Duval schools is less committed to it.
“We have supported this in the past because it is a good investment in crime control,” said Ray Holt, another councilman on the finance committee.
“We have never been in a more difficult budget, though. … It all boils down to whether we feel we can shift that burden to DCPS, as it is a school function. … If [Vitti] is prepared to have the suspended students in school, I think that could work. It would help the city.”
At a Jacksonville Journey oversight committee meeting last week, some members worried about an undercurrent of resistance to funding ATOSS.
“I remember from the first report on ATOSS, it was a shining star for reducing truancy as well as crime. We really should be doing more and not less,” said Charles Griggs, a member of the Jacksonville Journey’s committee.
But when Duval schools resumed Aug. 18, the district declined to “float” money to open all five ATOSS centers. Instead it funded only the ATOSS at the Bridge of Northeast Florida downtown.
Duval County Assistant Superintendent Dana Kriznar said only one ATOSS center is needed now because few students are likely be suspended this early in the school year. Also, she said, the district is reluctant to sign contracts and commitments with all its ATOSS partners after it received signals that city funding might not happen.
“We were a bit shaken,” she said.
Vitti added that the Bridge already houses other Duval students. Besides, he said, if Duval schools floats money to all the centers and the city cuts funds for ATOSS, it would look as if Duval schools closed the programs, he added.
But some ATOSS proponents said that not opening all the ATOSS centers at once is making their prospects worse, because Duval is taking pressure off the City Council to fund all the centers.
“You’ve … built an out for the council; if they feel like you’re prepared to move forward without [all ATOSS centers], they’ll also be prepared to move forward without it,” Griggs said.
Several objected to the Bridge being the only ATOSS center open. Though it is the most central location in the city, it is a long distance to travel for many parents who have to pick up students from suspension.
“I’m very heart-broken,” said Pat Lockett-Felder, former District 7 City Council member, “because in areas where the kids need this type of protection and teaching, they’re not going to be able to get it because [the Bridge’s ATOSS center] is not in the right place.”
The Rev. John Guns, who operates an ATOSS center at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, said he received late notice, only a few days before school, that he could not open his center. He and others questioned why Duval didn’t open that center, too.
“We serve over 1,300 kids in the heart of the community, where the kids walk to the center,” he said. “I’m not understanding how the Bridge was chosen for [Duval’s] funding.”
Vitti said he gave plenty of notice to ATOSS operators and he can’t directly float funds to a church. Besides, he said, fewer students will be suspended out of school this year, thanks to changes in student codes of conduct and in-school suspension.
Maybe Jacksonville Journey should put its money into programs other than ATOSS to help children in neighborhoods, said Betty Holzendorf, an early ATOSS proponent and former state senator and state representative.
“We have to do something to show parents and the community that we’re concerned about their kids and not about what organization is going to be able to hire and get the most money,” she said.
Denise Amos: (904) 359-4083