Truant elementary students cost North Coast school districts more than $20 million, according to a state attorney general report that said 1 million statewide elementary students missed class last school year.

Nearly a quarter of Lake County elementary students skipped school last year, the report found, costing districts $416 per pupil — one of the highest rates in the state.

Sonoma County's truancy rate is 12 percent — one of the lowest in the state. But the 5,000 truant students cost county schools $14 million last year, according to the report released Monday.

"We need to confront the behavior early on," said Sonoma County schools superintendent Steven Herrington. "If we don't confront the behavior early, then we will have a bigger problem later."

With a 14 percent truancy rate, Mendocino county schools lost $4 million in state education funds, which are distributed based on attendance.

Napa's 6 percent truancy rate — the third lowest in the state — cost schools $3.8 million.

Studies indicate that chronically truant students — those that miss at least 10 percent of the school year — are more likely to drop out of high school and to end up jobless or turn to crime, the report said.

"Factoring in the costs of incarceration and lost economic productivity and tax revenues, dropouts cost California an estimated $46.4 billion per year," the report said.

California schools lost $1.4 billion in state funding due to truancy, the report found.

State law, which requires children ages 6 to 18 to attend school, defines truants as those who are absent or tardy more than 30 minutes without a valid excuse three times in a school year.

At the beginning of the school year, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch sent a letter to parents of school-aged children saying that her office would crack down on truancy.

"The District Attorney's Office, with the cooperation of the schools, the police and the courts, will prosecute parents who fail to get their children to school on a regular basis without a valid excuse and, therefore, violate the truancy law," the letter said.

The state report released at an anti-truancy symposium in Los Angeles, said children have unexcused absences from school for a number of reasons, including family issues, neighborhood safety concerns and bullying. It called for a sweeping battle against absenteeism that brings together parents, educators, lawmakers, law enforcement and community groups.

Lake County's high truancy rate is exacerbated by economic factors, especially in rural areas, county superintendent Wally Holbrook said. Low income students have higher rates of truancy, he said.

"That certainly is a contributor," he said. "That's part of the make-up of our county."

Holbrook said that 40 percent of Lake County elementary students rely on public transportation to get to school, requiring an earlier start to the day.

"If they don't catch the bus, they don't go to school," he said.

Shrinking budgets have also contributed to districts cutting truancy reduction programs, said Brock Falkenberg, senior director of student programs for Lake County schools. The county is down to just one truancy officer from three officers two years ago.

Truancy officers track down no-show students, meet with families of chronically truant children and leverage country resources to help encourage school attendance.

Ironically, truancy has contributed to shrinking district budgets since the state's attendance-based school funding formula means that districts with low average daily attendance lose millions of dollars every year in state funds.

The report highlights three districts in Mendocino County — Willits Unified, Laytonville Unified and Round Valley Unified — that have lost $500,000 collectively for the past two years as a result of chronic absenteeism.

Paul Tichinin, Mendocino County superintendent of schools, said that those districts are using federal grant money to combat truancy by activating student attendance review boards and truancy officer programs.

"There is a concerted effort across departments in Mendocino County to address this problem," he said. "This is not a problem we're going to run away from."

Information from the Associated Press contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.