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Ted Siefer's City Hall: Board balks at leeway given to student miscreants

There was the eighth-grader who got caught with a knife and had violated the district's code of conduct on 29 previous occasions over the past year. There was the ninth-grader caught with marijuana for the fourth time who had amassed 60 prior offenses. There was the sixth-grader who threatened school staff members and had 50 previous offenses.

What do these Manchester School District students have in common? They were all allowed to escape expulsion and return to school.

This had several members of the Board of School Committee up in arms last week.

'I will say when I got this, I was astounded,' said committee member Debra Gagnon Langton at Monday's meeting, referring to a chart providing a breakdown of the outcomes of 39 serious disciplinary cases over the past school year.

'To find 80 percent of students referrals don't go before the expulsion committee,' Gagnon Langton said to Superintendent Thomas Brennan. 'I'd like see you more often delegate this task to the committee.'

That would be the Committee on Student Conduct, which Gagnon Langton chairs and is responsible for meting out the most serious disciplinary action short of criminal charges: expulsion.

It's safe to say that if a student ends up before the conduct committee, he or she is in trouble. Of the seven students referred to the committee for a hearing in the 2011-12 school year, the members voted to expel all seven. The charges included bullying, assault on a student and weapon possession.

The superintendent has discretion over what disciplinary cases to refer to the committee. The students involved in the other 32 cases received a wide range of punishments, from a 45-day suspension with mandatory counseling to a withdrawal of charges.

These cases included nearly a dozen knife possessions and two assaults on staff members.

'I'd say this is probably the tip of the iceberg,' said committee member Jason Cooper, who, it bears noting, is a former prison guard. 'If we have 11 referrals for students with knives out the thousands of students we have, then that concerns me. A good way to deter students from bringing weapons is to have a policy to show students that (these incidents) are handled aggressively.'

Brennan said he understood the desire for a 'zero tolerance' policy, but he said administrators need to have room to respond to the unique circumstances of a student and an incident.

'We need the latitude to assess,' Brennan said, pointing to the example of a student who brings a knife to school because that's the only way he has to get into his house.

There's another factor to consider, Brennan pointed out. More than a quarter of the violations were committed by students that either have a learning disability or were diagnosed with one after the incident. These include the student busted with marijuana for the fourth time and the eighth-grader who assaulted a staff member.

In such cases, the violations are classified 'manifestations of disability,' and responses must be devised with the student's Individualized Education Program supervisors.

'We are required to follow the law,' Brennan said.

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On Thursday, when city officials gather for the ground-breaking on the Hackett Hill fire station, more than a few might be pinching themselves.

During years of hearings, debate and wrangling over financing, the possibility of actually getting the station built at times seemed like a distant dream.

The station was finally placed on the fast track a few months ago, when the aldermen agreed to abandon plans to build the station through a land deal with the developer, Richard Danais.

Originally seen as a novel scheme to get the station built without the city incurring any debt, the plan faltered when Danais couldn't get financing.

The city did deliver on its side of the bargain, conveying to Danais the 123 acres surrounding the station site. Danais is to pay $2.6 million for the land over the next six years. He has reportedly been making payments periodically.

Prior to the deal with Danais, the city tried to partner with neighboring Hooksett to finance the new station, but Hooksett balked at the plan.

So the aldermen voted last month to have the city build the station on its own dime, authorizing the issuance of $2.3 million in bonds.

About $2 million of that will go to the contractor, Ricci Construction Co. of Portsmouth, which beat out eight other contractors as the lowest bidder.

The rest of the money will be going toward equipment and furnishings for the building, construction administration and other services, says Fire Chief James Burkush.

Burkush said he was looking forward to having a new West Side fire station to replace the current building, which was meant to be temporary when it was built 20 years ago.

He invited the public to attend the ground-breaking on Thursday. 'We are building a public facility. All taxpayers are welcome to come,' he said.

One person who doesn't appear to be on the guest list: Danais.

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The students might beg to differ, but the district's cafeteria czar thinks a price increase is in order for school lunches.

School Food and Nutrition Services Director Jim Connors had originally proposed a price increase of 10 cents, but then at the school committee meeting Monday, he said 5 cents would probably suffice.

The current cost of an elementary school lunch is $1.90, and it's $2.15 for the middle and high school meal.

Connors has said he's under pressure to raise the out-of-pocket lunch price from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which reimburses school districts at a flat rate for the free and reduced-price lunches they provide to students from low-income families. The district will be getting $2.86 per free lunch in the coming school year and $2.46 for each reduced-price lunch.

The feds, Connors has said, want the price families pay out of pocket to be in line with the reimbursement rate it pays.

Still, when pressed on Monday, Connors said the USDA has not indicated what consequences there would be, if any, should the district not raise its lunch prices.

For Mayor Ted Gatsas, there was a striking similarity between the staffing budget gap Connors said he could face this year and the increase in revenue the food services department could see if lunch prices were hiked by 10 cents: about $52,000.

Gatsas said such budgeting issues should already have been dealt with, and he stressed the district should try to avoid an increase in school lunch prices.

'It would be nice to send a message to parents that there will be no increase,' he said.

The school committee ended up tabling the issue.

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Ted Siefer may be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @tbsreporter.