Students, towns, businesses oppose Malloy vo-tech plan

Anthony Tarantino came to the state Capitol Wednesday with a message for state lawmakers: Leave his vocational-technical school alone.

“Why would you change something if it’s not broken? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” the senior, who is studying carpentry at Wilcox Technical High School in Meriden, told members of the Education Committee.

Tarantino was reacting to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to shift responsibility for the 16 vocational-technical schools from the state to local school districts or regional education panels over the next four years. Malloy’s proposal also would require each school to apply to the state for grants rather than have their budget requests drafted by the State Board of Education.

Malloy’s budget director said last week that the governor intends to maintain funding for the schools for the next two years, but the chairs of the education committee and those that testified said they worry the schools would be more vulnerable to cuts from the state subsequent years.

“In the long term it’s less certain to me how that would work,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford and co-chairman of the Education Committee.

Patricia Ciccone, superintendent of the 11,000-student vocational school system, said during an interview she is still digesting the ramifications of a shift away from state responsibility for the vocational system but is leery of the proposed change.

“I have concerns that technical education as we know it will not be a statewide business solution anymore because the future of these schools become each local district’s decision. They will make the call in what they can and cannot implement based on their budget. Given the economic times we are in, that could harm the success of the schools,” Ciccone said, who listened to more than eight hours of testimony on various education proposals.

Chucky Appleby, who was just accepted to attend Norwich Technical High School last week, also told lawmakers to leave the schools alone.

“It could hurt the training and education I need to pursue my trade,” the aspiring plumber said. He sat next to his 8-year old brother who also plans to attend a technical school someday.

But Malloy’s budget director Ben Barnes submitted testimony saying the administration is proposing the change to improve vocational education.

“It is anticipated that local administration of these schools would provide better integration and linkage to the local schools, which may provide better programming, enrollment plans and academics,” he wrote.

Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford and vice-chairman of the Education Committee, didn’t take a position on Malloy’s proposal, but said some change needs to be made in how the schools are run.

“The state has not always been a good friend of the vo-tech system,” he said.

Last year, after several vo-tech school administrators testified about deteriorating schools, outdated equipment and aged school buses, the legislature passed a new law aimed at improving the system, including a requirement that  the vo-tech superintendent compile an annual report on the adequacy of funding and resources.

In submitting that report to lawmakers in December, Ciccone wrote that “disrepair and hazardous conditions” remain at the vo-tech schools.

Municipal officials also object to the proposed change, worried they will be stuck with the bill, said James Finley, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities.

“We are concerned about inheriting a school system that would need a huge infusion of resources and worry we would be responsible for them,” he said.

The state currently pays $140 million to operate the schools across the state. Their total budget is $159 million, which includes funding from tuition, school lunches and $5 million in one-time federal stimulus dollars.

Businesses that depend on the graduates of these schools also expressed opposition to the proposal.

“We have had quite a bit of concern raised to us by our manufacturing community,” said Joe Brennan, senior vice president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. “The concern is if it becomes part of the local school system is whether they are going to get the attention and the technological assistance that they need.”