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Ted Siefer's City Hall -- Gatsas: Make 'habitually truant' students pay police fine

September 16. 2012 1:35AM

We learned last week that Mayor Ted Gatsas put in a call to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, as he faced a citywide teachers strike.

Contrary to his critics' perceptions, perhaps, the mayor considers himself a school reform proponent.

But it's safe to say he comes from the tough-love school, based on two of the priorities he was able to push forward last week.

One policy would allow the police to slap fines on students who rack up too many absences and could eventually lead to their expulsion. The other would lower the number of credits required for graduation from 22 to 20.

The first policy would apply to students deemed 'habitually truant.'

Under state statute, that's 10 half-days of unexcused absences during the school year. Under the proposed policy, police could issue such students $100 violations.

'Hopefully, we won't have to collect a penny,' police Lt. Scott Legasse told the board's Coordination Committee on Tuesday. 'It will be an incentive. But if you have someone who doesn't want to participate, there will be a consequence.'

Superintendent Thomas Brennan said it would be unlikely that a student would be expelled solely for habitual truancy.

Still, the charge could be added to the rap sheet of students referred to the Committee on Student Conduct, which is responsible for expelling students and intends to step up the number of cases it reviews this year.

A student can be expelled for up to 365 days, during which time he or she cannot attend any public school in the state.

The Coordination Committee approved the policy, and it will go to the full school board.

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The idea behind lowering the number of graduation credits is to make it easier to show marginal students the door, rather than force them to come back for a fifth year.

Brennan supports the policy, a turnaround from a few years ago when he backed raising the credit requirement.

Committee member Debra Gagnon Langton, however, opposed the change.

'I don't want to lower the bar,' she said. 'I think the more education a student can have, the better off the student will be.'

The mayor curtly told the subcommittee that he believed the board had already approved the policy and it only had to be put in place; other members weren't sure, and the committee clerk is going to report back.

Later in the week, Gatsas expounded on his get-tough education initiatives on the 'Girard-at-Large' radio show on WLMW.

'If a child doesn't come to school, that's refusing services. Something has to happen.

'There has got to be some law and order. Kids need to respect their teachers,' he said. 'And reducing the credits (for graduation), we're not dumbing down the curriculum. Some kids are graduating with 30-35 credits. We're talking about the kid who's got to come back for a fifth year who only needs one or two credits. That's an extra $10,000 we're paying.'

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And one more thing: School committee members, you better clear some more room in your schedule. Gatsas said he'll be calling full board meetings twice a month.

He told radio host Rich Girard that he'll be convening the meetings even if no one shows up. 'One meeting a month - this has got to end,' he said.

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Readers may recall that amid all the rancor over school funding and crowded classes the aldermen authorized the creation of a special school donation fund.

Notices sent out with tax bills in May told residents where they could send checks to support the Manchester School District. So how much landed in the account: $4,831.35 from some 50 residents, according to the most recent tally. Not quite enough to hire any new teachers.

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At-large Board of School Committee member Dave Wihby appears to have a secret admirer.

Not long ago, a billboard facing Interstate 293, just south of Exit 6, went up, reading 'Vote Whiby.'

It's probably one of the biggest campaign signs in the city.

Thing is, Wihby isn't running for anything, and he has no idea who paid for the sign.

There is at least one clue to the author's identity: He or she is not a careful speller.

It's 'i' before 'h.'

'It's a common mistake,' Wihby said, adding, 'I like it (the sign). I don't know how long it's going to be up.'

Wihby has a plausible theory about the motivation: Someone anticipated that voters on Tuesday would support the creation of a charter commission - as was the case - and wanted to draft him to serve.

If so, the sign may have had its desired effect.

Wihby intends to run for a seat on the nine-member panel, which will be tasked with proposing changes to the city's basic governing structure.

The billboard is perched over the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. building at 99 Eddy Road. The company left the site several years ago, and it was sold in July to 99 Eddy Road LLC, which is owned by developer Dick Anagnost.

Earlier this summer, the city Planning Board reviewed plans to convert the building into an indoor fitness center.

Anagnost, of course, is one of the city's most prominent developers, and he's been the benefactor of many a political campaign. In 2003, when Wihby was running for reelection to the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, he received a $500 donation from Anagnost, whom he called 'a friend.'

Anagnost said soon after his company took control of the building, it hired an outdoor advertising firm to rent out space on the billboards. He said Saturday he has no idea who rented the space for the billboard, since the outdoor advertising company handles the arrangements.

'I don't think it's Dave because the name is spelled differently,' Anagnost said. 'And anyway, if he wanted the space, he would have just called me directly.'

Readers: Perhaps you have some theories about the mystery sign …

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

City Hall Manchester

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