State Board of Ed concerned about plan to shift control of vo-tech schools

The Malloy Administration wants to turn the first four of 17 state-run vocational-technical schools over to local control in the next school year–a move that has members of the State Board of Education concerned.

“That’s insane,” board Chairman Allan B. Taylor said Wednesday, reacting to the timeline.

Benjamin Barnes, budget chief for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, announced last month that the administration wants to shift responsibility for the 10,600-student system from the state to municipal or regional control, but didn’t disclose a timetable. News that the shift would begin in the 2011-2012 school year surprised many.

“You have a debacle on your hands,” said interim Education Commissioner George A. Coleman, questioning whether the impacted districts could handle the added responsibility so soon. “We don’t know what the local response will be… what they need to accept this.”

The four vocational schools to be turned over during the 2011-12 school year are A.I. Prince in Hartford, E.C. Goodwin in New Britain, Howell Cheney in Manchester and Vinal in Middletown. The next school year four more schools will be turned over: Bullard Havens in Bridgeport, Windham in Willimantic, Eli Whitney in Hamden and Kaynor in Waterbury. By July 2015 the state will shed all management responsibility for the schools.

The state currently pays $134 million a year to run the schools, including about $5 million for the 66 full-time state employees in the central office in Hartford.

Malloy’s budget director has said the administration does not intend to cut financial support from the state in the next two years, but State Board of Education members and vo-tech system Superintendent Patricia Ciccone worry that this new restructure will make the schools vulnerable to cuts down the road.

“Local boards of education are obviously limited just as the state is limited” Ciccone said. “There is a great potential for underfunding these schools.”

During a town meeting on his proposed budget in Torrington, Malloy said his proposal is aimed at protecting the vo-tech schools. As mayor of Stamford, he said, he saw how J.M. Wright Technical High School declined under state oversight.

“I watched the state literally destroy one of those vocational schools,” Malloy told the audience. “They literally ran it into the ground. And when they succeeded in running it into the ground they closed it,”

He said he was frustrated that even as mayor he was unable to do anything about the decision to close the school.

“I tried to help it,” he said. “What I am trying to do is get more local input in the proper running of a school.”

But State Board of Education members, many who were just nominated by Malloy for their positions last week, questioned the wisdom of such a change.

Patricia Keavney-Maruca, a newly nominated member who worked at Kaynor Tech for 33 years, said it seems Malloy’s proposal “just defies logic,” because the system “was designed to be a regional school system for a reason.”

Joseph J. Vrabely, Jr., who was reappointed by Malloy and is chair of the state board’s Vocational-Technical School Committee, said he worries the plan sends the wrong message to businesses in the state reliant on graduates from vo-tech schools, including his small manufacturing company.

“I know we have to make cuts, I know we have to integrate things but you’re taking away that feeder system from manufacturers,” he said.

It’s not clear how much of the system’s operating costs the state would continue to pay down the road under Malloy’s plan.

“Will the state’s share be 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent? That has not been determined,” Brian Mahoney, chief financial officer for the State Department of Education, told the board.

Taylor said Malloy’s proposal deserves full consideration, but his gut reaction is, “It’s a mistake.”

If the goal is to reduce state spending, he added, there are other ways to accomplish that without destroying the statewide infrastructure.

“It’s hard to believe it’s anything but the economic implications… on the face of it, none of us understand this,” he said.