Jacksonville, district in tussle over suspension program costs

A program focused on schoolwork has kept tens of thousands of Duval kids who were suspended from school off city streets. However, the program is set to go down to the wire as the city of Jacksonville, which pays most of the program costs now, and Duval Public Schools, which pays about a third of it, enter into a tug of war over whether the suspension should go on.

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, considering the crime numbers and student suspensions are down and graduation rates are on the rise. The scope of one successful program could be affected by the winner of the debate as well as potentially affecting the balance of funding of other community and school partnerships.

The district sharing at least half the costs next year may be as a result of civil discussion and negotiations between city and district leaders. However, 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.

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, according to Robin Lumb, an at-large city council member from District 5. He said the district’s problems are kids on suspension.

“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.

Nonetheless, the city is obligated to pay for the program, since the city benefits most when kids are deflected from mischief and crime into a supervised environment, according to advocates like W.C. Gentry, a former School Board member who served on the city’s oversight committee for that program and others.

“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.”

Alternative to Truancy and Out of School Suspension (ATOSS) is the program in question. Started 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 program was launched in the spring of 2009. The program 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.

As Denise Smith Amos of The Florida Times Union reports, ATOSS’s five centers each employs a teacher, social worker and police officer or guard to supervise, tutor and coach suspended students instead of putting kids out of school, potentially unsupervised and likely falling behind on classwork. Classwork and assignments are supposed to be sent by students’ regular teachers. Alternatively, while suspended, students work online.