Budget cuts block anti-truancy effort

State budget cuts and a directive from Gov. Bobby Jindal’s office effectively ended LSU’s involvement with statewide truancy programs for at-risk youths.

The LSU Office of Social Service Research Development announced Wednesday that it will end its 16-year partnership with the Truancy Assessment and Service Center on July 1. It blamed the move on a $331,000 budget cut handed down from the state late last month.

An East Baton Rouge Parish school administrator, Domoine Rutledge, familiar with the program said removing LSU from the process could compromise anti-truancy efforts around the state.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III, another vocal supporter of the TASC program, called it one of the most effective initiatives he’s seen and a model for similar efforts. He called LSU’s announcement “sad to see.”

Jindal did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Kristy Nichols, Jindal’s commissioner of administration, said in a prepared statement released Wednesday night: “The Truancy Assessment and Service Center program itself is not ending, the centers did not get a funding reduction, and the centers still have $2.4 million in funding to continue their activities and core functions of reducing truancy and getting kids back in school in 21 parishes. Part of the midyear deficit plan, however, included finding efficiencies and savings of $331K in administrative costs.”

Created by the Legislature in 1998 to prevent students from dropping out and diverting at-risk youths away from crime, TASC targets K-5 students referred to the program by schools after a certain number of absences.

A TASC officer reviews the case and determines if the student is considered a risk for chronic truancy. If so, the officer works with the student’s family to craft a tailored service plan aimed at improving the student’s school participation.

Officers also follow up with students and monitor their progress.

When TASC gets involved, 85 percent of the students stay in school, said Cecile Guin, LSU’s OSSRD director. The program has served 82,000 children in 32 parishes over the years, she added.

Guin said she learned of the state budget cut in late December. LSU and three TASC program sites initially worked out an arrangement where LSU would absorb $250,000 in cuts and the program sites would shoulder the rest.

But Jindal’s office nixed that proposal and ordered that LSU would take the full brunt of the cut, effectively ending the university’s participation in the program, Guin said.

LSU handled the research and accountability components of the program, meaning it identified the specific reasons for truancy; assigned report cards to program sites; tracked student progress; and created a database of more than 100,000 children to be followed up with every year.

Guin said it was LSU’s job to gather the scientific evidence and demonstrate the programs’ effectiveness to legislators.

“We go to the Legislature and say ‘This is how much the project cost, this is who we’ve served and these are the outcomes,’ ” Guin said. LSU’s reporting to the Legislature was a major reason the program gets state funding, she said.

East Baton Rouge Parish TASC director Jenny Ponder said her program serves between 800 and 1,000 students at 19 high-risk schools each year.

She said LSU helped them “sustain a viable model” that will allow them to continue their work going forward even without future input from the university.

“We certainly appreciate all of the effort LSU has given the center,” Ponder said. “We also appreciate (the Jindal administration) for recognizing the services we provide and for allowing us to continue our work.”

Ponder said the program will look for a new partner to run the evaluation component in the future.

LSU’s role in evaluating the program played a significant role in the entire process, as it keeps program workers “on their toes” and likely prevents workers from cutting corners knowing they would be evaluated every year, argued Domoine Rutledge, general counsel for East Baton Rouge Parish’s public school system.

“Getting rid of LSU will probably be welcomed by some because they placed additional requirements on the TASC sites,” Rutledge said. “Hopefully, now that they have less work to do that won’t compromise their performance.”

But Rutledge acknowledged that TASC sites in the Baton Rouge area “are mature sites,” and not likely to experience decreased performance or quality of service.

“LSU was beneficial because of the research component they brought,” he said. “We certainly appreciate the approach taken to ensure the cuts aren’t going directly to the program.”