COLUMBUS — The Cherokee County Commission fielded a request from Spring River Mental Health and Wellness and local school districts to fund a program which helps to keep students in school, but which has been cut by the Juvenile Justice Authority.
According to truancy program administrator Leeanne Ewing, of Spring River, the funding has been steadily reduced for the last two years, and at the start of fiscal 2013 — which was July 1 — eliminated entirely.
The truancy program targets students who could otherwise wind up as dropouts.
Ewing said students are not only tracked to make sure they are attending school, but enrolled in counseling which parents are required to attend in order to determine what issues are causing the truancy and allow for treatment for those issues as well.
Ewing said the success rate for the program fluctuates between 86 and 88 percent.
District Court Magistrate Judge Bill Lyerla said 22 years ago, when he first joined the bench in Cherokee County there was no program. Truants were simply hauled before a judge and a child in need of care case was opened — which could eventually result in the child being removed from a home.
"Cherokee county had one of the highest dropout rates in the state," Lyerla said, adding he went to Spring River President Scott Jackson and asked what could be done. Spring River, which at the time was called Family Life Center, went to the state and found grants which allowed them to start the program.
"Now we have one of the lowest (dropout rates)," Lyerla said.
Lyerla noted that truancy cases are still filed as child in need of care, but parents are given "a choice between enrolling in the program or going before me.
"Ninety-nine-point-nine percent would rather see Leeanne than me."
Area superintendents of schools were in attendance and were adamant that funding for the program needed to be found.
"We really feel like its been a great benefit," Columbus Superintendent David Carriger said. "I hate to see programs like this, that have been successful ... taken away because of budget cuts at the state level."
Baxter Superintendent Dennis Burke and Riverton Superintendent Todd Berry concurred, both saying the program was vital.
All three commissioners agreed as well and asked how much the program costs yearly. Jackson said the cost has been $22,000 per year.
Commission Chairman Richard Hilderbrand said split between the four school districts and the county the cost would come to $4,400 per year each and said the county would be willing to budget for that cost. The assembled superintendents said they would recommend the same to their boards of education.