SCOTTS VALLEY, Calif. – Tired of parents pulling their kids out of school for a ski trip or a visit to Disneyland, the local school system is billing them for the missed class time at $36.13 per day.
That is how much the Scotts Valley district calculates it loses under a state formula that doles out school funding according to daily attendance.
In truth, the bills are merely a request; no one is actually required to pay.
But some parents in the well-to-do community 30 miles south of Silicon Valley are paying up to ease their guilty consciences. Others are refusing, saying the request is offensive in a state where nearly half the annual budget — $66 billion — already is devoted to education.
"I tossed it. It's a public school. I'm not going to be told to pay when I have my kids out," said Helene Handy, who received the explanatory letter three times, once for each of her children. "We've got to have a better way to pay for our schools."
School officials said the purpose is twofold — to discourage parents from aiding and abetting hooky, and to recoup money lost to absences.
The 2,800-student district — which is populated with a large number of high-tech specialists and managers and had a median household income in 2000 of more than $72,000 — sent a letter of explanation in January to parents. It was titled "If You Play, Please Pay."
"Are the ski slopes calling? Is the beach beckoning? Are you taking the kids to Disneyland midweek to avoid the crowds?" the letter asked. "If so, we would encourage you to reconsider. When your child misses school, there are consequences for the student and the district."
In California, under a formula that dates to the 1930s, how much a school receives in tax dollars is based on how many students are in class on any given day.
"Elective absences," or days missed for reasons other than illness, cost the Scotts Valley district $223,000 during the 2005-06 school year, according to the school system. On average, it says, a Scotts Valley child misses 2.3 days because of elective absences.
Within two weeks after the letter went home, the district collected more than $2,000, said Brenda Spalding, assistant to Superintendent Susan Silver.
Stan Wilson took his two children to Hawaii for a week earlier this school year. Connor, 6, and Courtney, 8, missed five days of school. When the family returned, the Wilsons received a note from the school system asking for compensation. The letter did not specify how much, but it would have totaled more than $360.
Wilson happily gave even more, writing a check for $500. The tax-deductible "donation" was a bargain compared to the private school tuition he and his wife were prepared to pay before they decided to keep their children in public school, Wilson said.
"We saved so much money, we decided it was fair," he said.
The 10,000-student San Mateo-Foster City elementary school system started doing the same thing a few years ago, when Silver was an administrator there. Representatives of the associations representing state and national school boards said they had not heard of any other districts trying to recover costs when students miss class.
Charlotte Multer, a member of the PTA at two Scotts Valley schools, said the request for reimbursement is fair.
"Our schools are duct-taped together and they're in portables. It's a shame. We need every penny we can keep," she said. "If you can afford to go to Disneyland or go on a ski trip, maybe you can afford a donation."