Empty seats costs San Diego school district millions

by Joanne Faryon | KPBS and Kevin Crowe | inewsource

Student 114 is a sophomore at Lincoln High in southeast San Diego. What makes her exceptional is the number of school days she missed last year – 87— nearly half the tenth grade.

She cost her school $2,464.71.

A KPBS-inewsource investigation found there are thousands of chronically absent kids in San Diego County schools who together cost their districts millions of dollars in state funding.

During the 2009-2010 term, traditional public schools in San Diego County lost out on at least $102 million in state funding because of absences, according to data gathered by KPBS and inewsource, an investigative reporting nonprofit based at San Diego State University. That figure totaled $624 million over the past five years.

The attendance-based funding formula puts a bounty on the heads of students, forcing schools to meticulously track their absences – placing dollar amounts next to their names. Number 114 is one of 357 students on a list of the chronically absent at Lincoln High. A student is considered chronically absent if he or she misses 10 percent or more of the 180-day school year.

At Ramona Unified, 465 chronically absent students cost the district $345,816.89 last year. Twenty-four of them missed at least a quarter of the school year. Two were absent more than 100 days.

Check individual schools in San Diego for attendance rates and missed revenues.

On average, a student with perfect attendance is worth about $5,230 to a school district in San Diego County. Every day missed reduces that amount by about $29. It may not sound like much, but the multiplier effect can be financially staggering for some schools.

A total of twelve schools in the county cost their districts more than $1 million last year in missed revenue. This was the case for five schools in Grossmont Union High District, and for the single school in Fallbrook Union High School District.

“Certainly when the state of California changed its financing of public education from enrollment to average daily attendance, it had an adverse impact on school districts, including ours,” said Fallbrook Superintendent Dale Mitchell. “That presents a problem for us.”

Schools used to be paid for excused absences, which included sick days if students had a parent or doctor’s note. But the law changed because the existing formula “encourages schools to accept excuses and discourages them from investigating possibly fraudulent excuses,” according to an Assembly Committee on Education hearing in 1998, when the law was passed.

Many experts agree that districts should have a financial incentive to get kids to class, but across the country that level of incentive varies.

“All 50 states base funding on student population and students are counted in different ways,” according to Deborah Verstegen, a University of Nevada education professor who studied school finance across the country.

Some states use enrollment; others count attendance on a specific day of the school year.

Verstegen says the average daily attendance, or ADA, formula tends to favor schools in suburban neighborhoods, where attendance is generally higher than those in city and rural areas.

The inequities in California are compounded by the existence of basic aid districts, which do not rely as much on state funding as most other districts, and “necessary small schools,” which typically serve large, rural areas and receive state funding based on an enrollment system.

For its analysis, KPBS and inewsource analyzed enrollment figures for more than 450 traditional, non-charter schools from 21 districts. The analysis compared enrollment to attendance figures schools report to the state. The difference between those figures was multiplied by a state-calculated, per-student revenue limit for each district to arrive at the potential funding losses. (Read more about the analysis.)

San Diego Unified School District, one of the largest districts in the state, lost out on $34 million last year. That’s nearly 6 percent of the $595 million the state would have paid for perfect attendance.

Of the 170 traditional schools in San Diego Unified, Hoover High lost out on the most money — $1.3 million — because of poor attendance. Lincoln High wasn’t far behind at $1 million. The majority of students in both schools are from low-income households, with more than 96 percent and 85 percent of their students, respectively, eligible for the free and reduced lunch program, according to state data.

“Our poverty families have a more difficult time getting kids to school. Access to health care, access to transportation, and that does affect attendance levels in those schools,” said Bernie Rhinerson, chief of staff at the district.

Schools keep lists of chronically absent students not just to track financial losses, but to determine who is at risk for low academic achievement, Rhinerson said, adding, if you’re not at school, you can’t learn.

“It’s really important that we look at that data and we see which students are missing school at a high rate because then we can focus on how can we help them, how can we work with the family,” he said.

Randolph Ward, superintendent of San Diego County Office of Education, said he believes the funding formula for schools is flawed and unfair in many ways.

“Are we really just paying for kids sitting in a seat? I don’t think so. We expect achievement,” he said. “But the paradigm doesn’t say that. The paradigm says we’re paying for sitting in a seat.”

Some schools go to great lengths to get kids in those seats. The Sweetwater Union High School District has in the past raffled off a refurbished car to seniors with perfect attendance. In the Poway Unified School District, administrators post running tallies of dollars lost to motivate students to show up more often.

Despite the efforts, few if any schools will ever have perfect attendance and get full funding from the state.

Fallbrook Superintendent Mitchell pointed out that just because students are absent some of the time doesn’t mean the schools aren’t spending resources on them.

Districts can use the law to get kids in class, but the process is long and complicated. In California, kids are considered truant after three or more unexcused absences.

The student must appear before the school’s Student Attendance Review Committee. Then, the county department of education steps in, and the Student Attendance Review Board gives the student a contract.

The District Attorney’s office will go to court after all those steps have been taken, according to Michele Linley, chief of the District Attorney’s Juvenile division.

Last year, the DA processed 284 truancy cases, a fraction of the number of students appearing on chronic absenteeism lists gathered in the KPBS-inewsource investigation.

“What choices they (school districts) make about who is sent to us and who is not, I can’t speak to – they vary from school district to school district,” Linley said.

The DA also requires a representative from the district to appear at truancy hearings, a requirement that may deter some cash-strapped districts from pursuing more cases through the courts, Linley said.

A law, passed in January, holds parents of children in 8th grade and below responsible for chronically absent children. They can face up to a year in custody and a $2,000.00 fine. Linley said no one has been prosecuted under the new provision.

At the urging of administrators at San Diego Unified, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis sent a letter to parents about the new law. ”If you are facing problems getting your child to school, I urge you to resolve the issues before they become serious,” she said.

Joe Johnson, Executive Director of the National Center for Urban School Transformation at SDSU, travels across the country studying high-achieving schools in urban neighborhoods, schools that are successful in getting kids to class.

“Most people would agree that students are not likely to learn from school if they don’t attend school,” he said in an email, contending that state funding formulas should provide districts enough money to run schools “in ways that help schools make regular attendance practical and even attractive for students and families.”

For example, he said, making it easy to get to school could help, but ironically, school buses are among the first things to be eliminated when districts are forced to deal with budget cuts.

Three years ago, the Fallbrook district reduced bus routes and instituted a transportation fee. That fee is going up again this year so the buses can keep bringing students to school, Mitchell said.

A bill making its way through the state legislature would simplify some aspects of categorical school funding, base more funding on the needs of students and make district financials more transparent. But, the new law wouldn’t change how revenue funding is calculated.

“We base funding on students’ attendance in school. That’s where they’re losing their money,” said Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica, who introduced the bill. “Should we change that? I certainly would like to,” she said. “The problem being the state doesn’t have the money in order to do that.”

Ward thinks the structure of public education funding in California needs to shift.

“What if we were to have a system that was based on a basic tier of enrollment, but then another tier on achievement?” he mused. “Not just achievement on a straight level, but achievement on a growth level, so even the high districts need to maintain a certain growth.”

Rhinerson said tinkering with the way funds are allocated doesn’t get to the heart of the problem – California does not spend enough money to educate kids.

The debate should be about how to fund schools “at a level we need to provide quality education,” he said.

KPBS and inewsource have invested four months so far examining school funding in San Diego County. Andres Barraza, a KPBS intern, contributed to this report.

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About Joanne Faryon:

Joanne Faryon is a freelance reporter and former inewsource and KPBS reporter.
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