Vo-tech school leaders say students learning on outdated equipment

Shannon Gracie decided years ago that she would study to become a machinist at her local vocational-technical school in Ansonia.

“This job fits me,” she said. “There was a time I thought I wanted to do auto repair, but this is just more fun.”

The problem, school officials say, is that much of the equipment that she learns the trade on at Emmett O’Brien Vocational Technical School is as old as she is.

“When my students get jobs, the equipment they are expected to work with is modern, stuff they don’t use here,” said Mike Varonka, the head of the manufacturing department at O’Brien. The vast majority of the equipment in Varonka’s shop, which is used to teach about 100 students each year, was made in the 1980s or earlier.

“Just think how much has changed since then,” he said, standing next to a machine from 1969 he uses to teach students to build tools. “That’s almost as old as this school. … We are forced to manage with what we have.”

And this problem isn’t unique to O’Brien. Many of the trade shops at the state’s 17 vocational-technical high schools are outdated, superintendent Patricia A. Ciccone told state lawmakers last week.

Emmett O'Brien

Mike Varonka teaches students at Emmett O’Brien Vocational Technical School on a decades-old machine

“Shops which should replicate the current status of the trade technologies are full of outdated and obsolete equipment,” she said. The state is responsible for funding the 11,000 student vo-tech school system.

Conditions at the vo-tech schools were the subject of a lengthy public hearing earlier this year, which resulted in a new law requiring the State Bond Commission vote twice a year on whether to allocate money for maintenance and equipment. The law also requires Ciccone to report annually to state lawmakers on the adequacy of funding.

Her first report, to members of the Education, Higher Education and Labor committees, says “disrepair and hazardous conditions” at the vo-tech scghools “have become more critical by a lack of bond funds released … More funding will be needed to address many more deficiencies.”

The report says the schools have received just $500,000 to repair and purchase new trade and academic equipment since March. She estimates the schools need $5 million a year for the next several years to bring the schools’ equipment up to date.

“We are so behind,” she said during an interview. “We are almost completely dependent on private businesses and federal grants to purchase new things… It’s tragic, really.”

Members in the business community seem to agree.

“I would consider their equipment archaic,” said David Barlow, manager of Farrel Corporation, a rubber and plastics manufacturing company in Ansonia. “When making hiring decisions, companies look for people that can actually operate computer operated machines. They don’t have those machines” at Emmett O’Brien.

Joseph J. Vrabely–owner of Atlantic Steel and Processing in Waterbury, board member of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and chairman of the vocational-technical school committee for the State Board of Education–echoed those remarks.

“The equipment they’re being trained on will not be what they use when they graduate. It’s a shame,” he said. “Businesses need workers that are skill-ready.”

State lawmakers last week sympathized with Ciccone, and on several occasions called the state’s handling of these schools “neglect.”

“These schools are in desperate need of attention,” said Sen. Thomas P. Gaffey, D-Meriden and co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “This is going to be front and center for me.”

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia and co-chairwoman of the Labor Committee, said “I am hysterical” that these students don’t have the equipment they need to learn their trade.

But lawmakers also reminded Ciccone that the state is facing a deficit as much as $3.67 billion.

“Everything is going to be difficult to get funding for in the next couple of years,” said Rep. Andrew M. Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the Education Committee. “But I am going to fight like heck for them to get more funding. This should be at the top of our list. It’s a crying shame how bad they have been neglected.”

While state lawmakers decide if they will find the $5 million Ciccone says is needed annually to upgrade their equipment, Gracie will continue to go to school and learn from equipment she even calls “outdated.”

But her teacher, Veronka, chimes in that even with his aged shop at O’Brien, it was enough for her to land an internship at Schwerdtle Stamp Company in Bridgeport.

“She’ll get on-the-job training there. We just try to provide the basics here,” he said.