Council delays truancy vote so school system can prepare

By Mark Bullock - email

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Attention parents! If your child skips school, you could find yourself behind bars. Montgomery city council member Tracy Larkin proposed the new ordinance, which some say is the wrong way to address the city's growing truancy problem.

Larkin claims he has the votes to pass the proposal. But at Tuesday's meeting, the council chose to delay any action. The vote was carried over to the council's next meeting in an effort to give the school system more time to prepare.

"The superintendent is working to satisfy one of the requirements of the ordinance," Larkin explained.

That requirement is a school system-operated holding center. The ordinance would require students picked up by police be taken to the center until their parents can be notified. The parents could then be fined or imprisoned.

The punitive aspect of the proposal has come under fire recently by attorneys at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Larkin says he is willing to make changes to the ordinance, but he stresses, punishment is not what it's all about.

"We are not in the business of putting parents in jail. That's not what the objective of this ordinance is," Larkin insisted.

Instead, he says the law would send a message to parents that they are responsible for their children's behavior -- a responsibility that is already spelled out in Alabama state law.

Larkin says a city ordinance would simply ensure that troubled families get the attention they deserve and that children get the education they need.

"Our objective is to see that children are in school and that they're successful in school and not to punish students or parents," Larkin said.

For example, Larkin says parents would not necessarily face fines or jail time. If they can prove to a judge that they're genuinely trying to get their kids back in school, Larkin says the charges could be dropped and social agencies could intervene.

Council members will likely vote on the proposal in two weeks. They have asked that Montgomery School Superintendent John Dilworth be present at the meeting to answer any questions.

The council Tuesday also offered several amendments to the mayor's proposed 2009 city budget, which cuts most departments by 5% and relies heavily on the city's reserve fund -- a result of a weakened economy and a shortfall in sales tax revenue.

A public hearing on the proposed changes will be held during the council's next meeting and the budget will be sent back to the mayor.

Mayor Bright was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting because of a death in the family. A final city budget must be passed by October first.