Students absent from classes in the Los Alamitos Unified School District need an excuse from home. A $40 check for each missed day would be nice too, the district says.
The request was contained in a letter to parents discussing the value, both academic and financial, of coming to school all day, every day. It noted that 80% of the district’s revenue comes from state contributions based on daily student attendance -- about $40 per student per day.
District officials emphasize that the parent checks to reimburse the district for lost state revenue are strictly voluntary, but note that in times of tight budgets, every dollar counts.
Most parents registering students at Los Alamitos High School on Wednesday afternoon said it’s a guilt trip they’re not willing to take.
“I think the schools ask for enough money as it is,” said Jean Scheele, noting the cost of cheerleader outfits, yearbooks and volleyball games for her sophomore daughter. “When does it stop?”
The idea surfaced last year when the district sent out a similar letter -- sans the direct appeal for money -- and some parents sent in $40 checks, said Supt. Carol Hart. This summer, administrators decided to issue the plea.
“Should a student be absent,” the letter reads, “parents/guardians are encouraged to support the schools, if at all possible, by sending a check to LAUSD for $40 per day of absence.”
Hart said the letter was mainly intended to drive home an absence’s effect on learning and school funding but said she hopes it will generate some funds.
“We would love it if as many parents could as possible,” she said. “But we only encourage it if they can afford to. This is only if they can and are willing.”
It all depends, parents say.
“If I were to take my kids out of school for a vacation or something, I’d donate the money because I’d feel bad,” said Laura Lindquist, whose three sons attend school in the 10-campus district.
“But our family isn’t going to plan something on school time anyway.”
When it comes to children being sick, though, it seemed no one plans to cough up the $40. “I wouldn’t feel responsible in that case,” Lindquist said.
“It’s not like I let them stay home for no reason. When they’re sick, they’re sick, and parents shouldn’t be punished for keeping them away from other kids.”
The district lost $1.1 million last year because of absences. As in other districts, that money is used for fixed costs: costs incurred even when children don’t come to school, including textbooks, utilities and teacher salaries.
San Marino Unified School District has undertaken similar efforts for more than a decade, and has recouped an estimated 50% of lost state aid with voluntary parent reimbursements.
“Most parents are very responsive,” said school board President Robert Gayl. “They have been really good about understanding our need.”
Jeri Wenger, a consultant for the state’s Assn. of School Business Officials and whose La Verne-based consulting group conducts statewide attendance workshops, said districts are being more creative in their fund-raising efforts.
The Los Alamitos letter rightfully makes parents partly responsible for their children’s attendance, she said.
“As long as it’s a donation and it’s done voluntarily, it’s an appropriate thing for parents to do if they so choose,” Wenger said.
The state’s Parent Teacher Assn. encourages districts to inform families about the value of attendance. But making entreaties for money is a touchy issue, said PTA spokeswoman Linda Mayo.
“Superintendents and school boards must carefully consider how a plea for reimbursement will be perceived,” she said. “What might be uncomfortable in one community could be welcomed in another.”
As in Los Alamitos, a handful of parents in the Saddleback Valley Unified School District have voluntarily sent checks to the school to cover absences, said Laura Ott, assistant to Supt. Jerry Gross.
“We have some really conscientious parents who know that budgets are tight and money is short,” Ott said. “It’s kind of nice of them to send in the money, but we’d rather the child be in school.”
Capistrano Unified Supt. James A. Fleming said he had no plans to implement anything like Los Alamitos’ fund-raising.
Rather, trustees last week approved plans to reward students for good attendance, using the extra revenue received at campuses with increased attendance over last school year. Individual students will receive a range of prizes for perfect or improved attendance, such as priority parking, a 3% bump in their final grades and being entered in a districtwide drawing for a brand-new car.
“We’re using the carrot approach,” Fleming said. “We’ve seen a tendency from parents and children to be a little casual when it comes to attendance. We don’t think that’s good for children’s education, and we know it’s not good for our financial situation.”
Children who are seriously ill shouldn’t come to school, he said.
“But when you feel like starting the ski weekend a day early or you just don’t feel fully up to par, come on to school anyway,” he added. “Children cannot learn if they’re not there.”
In 1998, California policy regarding attendance changed so that even excused absences for religious holidays or illnesses did not entitle schools to funding. Also, secondary school teachers must take attendance every period, and if a student is absent for one or more, the campus loses funding accordingly.
Structuring funding that way is unfair to students, said Susan Wooley, executive director of the Ohio-based national American School Health Assn. It puts pressure on parents to force kids to come to school when they’re sick and prompts districts to make such unusual appeals as Los Alamitos has, she said.
“Unfortunately, the reality of how we’ve set up the education system isn’t necessarily what’s best for kids,” she said.