FAIRBANKS — The parents of a Fairbanks sixth grader with 49.5 unexcused absences faced potential fines of $4,500. It was $8,000 for a student who missed 70 days. The parents of a Fairbanks first grader who racked up 95 days of absences could have been charged $9,500.
Each case reached plea agreements that let them off without fines, except for the student with 95 days missed, who ended up paying $200.
The cases, including the many thousands of dollars of legal fees, staff time and missed classes, are all examples of how the borough’s truancy program, inherited through state law, is broken, said Borough Assemblyman Karl Kassel.
“It’s this huge mega process with a big hammer and we don’t want to use this big hammer,” he said. “It effectively isn’t addressing the issue and it can take two years to resolve, meanwhile half a high school career is over. ... I believe the process is broken.”
Kassel is taking the lead on the assembly to pass a homebrewed truancy program that offers more flexibility to keep cases out of the courts, get parents involved and students back in the classroom. On Wednesday night, Kassel and Fairbanks North Star Borough School District officials made the case to the rest of the assembly for a reworked program.
The proposed program would override state law, which provides deference to local laws on truancy, and would soften the penalties for truancy, cut down the time for the borough to address the issue and encourage greater parental involvement.
Currently, parents can be fined up to $500 for every five days of unexcused absences, which can be dismissed for a full year of perfect attendance. The new rule would create a mandatory warning, followed by $50, $100 and $200 citations for first, second and third violations. The fine could be satisfied by two months of perfect attendance.
The currency truancy program also can take many weeks and months to come to a resolution as the issue is brought to the school board and then to court and even a trial. The new process would contact parents directly when a fine becomes necessary, taking less than a week or two.
Fellow assembly members seemed generally supportive of the idea, but had many questions about the specifics of the implementation and concerns about the cost of the program. Kassel said he believes it will cost less. Others were concerned about the local government getting involved in issuing citations.
School District Interim Assistant Superintendent Karen Gaborik also provided evidence that extreme cases of truancy dramatically affect student’s education and chances at graduating.
Students who attend 95 percent of classes graduate 91 percent of the time, she said. Just a quarter of students who attend less than 80 percent of classes will graduate, she said. Those students are 14 times more likely to drop out than others, she said.
When asked if the truancy program works for problem students, she said yes.
“Attendance has improved drastically and parents have become much more involved,” she said.
Kassel said he has fielded a number of calls from parents concerned about the ordinance, including a parent who can’t get his 12-year-old son to school because he often doesn’t know where he is.
“Wow, if you have a 12-year-old who’s totally free and roaming the community, there’s a bigger issue here,” he said. “As a parent you should wake up and be more involved with your children. I think this ordinance addresses that because the small size of the fine and the ability to waive it much more quickly than state law. This is much more of a carrot than a stick.”
The assembly will take public testimony and take action on the ordinance during its next meeting.