Liability issues keep equipment out of the hands of vo-tech students

When Pratt & Whitney offered to donate a jet engine worth more than $1 million for students at Connecticut Aero Tech School to learn on, teacher Roger Phillips knew the school would have to turn it down.

“Unfortunately, our hands are tied,” Phillips said, standing in his shop amidst aged and incomplete jet engines. “These companies don’t want to be sued” if their equipment ever causes an injury.

Donations from private industry have historically played an important role in supplying tools and material to the 11,000-student state-run vocational-technical school system, said Superintendent Patricia A. Ciccone. But the fear of being sued, and the state’s unwillingness to assume liability, has begun to deter companies like United Technologies Corporation and its subsidiaries from donating.

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Teacher Roger Phillips with engines used by his students at Connecticut Aero Tech School in Hartford

“It’s an issue for any of our shops,” Ciccone said about the vocation-technical system’s 16 schools and two adult education programs. “These companies do want to support us.”

This issue is important because the vocational-technical schools have struggled to get and maintain modern equipment for students to learn on. In her annual report to state legislators, Ciccone said $5 million a year would be needed for the next several years to bring the schools’ equipment up to date.

“Resources are tight, so donations really help us out,” Ciccone said.

A proposal to hold companies harmless for misuse of the equipment is gaining support in the General Assembly, where members of the Judiciary and Education committees unanimously approved the measure.

But the momentum may stop at Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s desk, as his budget office strongly opposes the bill.

“We don’t want to expand our liability… We don’t think that’s proper,” said Gian-Carl Casa, the undersecretary of the Office of Policy and Management. “There could be significant costs.”

The legislature’s non-partisan budget office agrees.

“The state then becomes responsible for any costs brought about by the law suit,” a fiscal-impact statement says, adding the costs could be “significant.”

But Robert Sartoris, the principal of both Aero Tech in Hartford and Howell Cheney in Manchester, said students are adequately trained and supervised to prevent injuries. “The checks and balance are extremely tight,” he said, adding he is “not aware of any” suits against the school for injuries caused by equipment.

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Robert Sartoris, the principal of Aero Tech: ‘The checks and balance are extremely tight’

In any case, he said, he does not see why it would cost the state more to insure a donated jet engine than an engine the school purchases independently.

The situation is different at the state’s public schools, as towns have assumed liability, says an official responsible for insuring numerous public schools and towns across the state.

“They own it and they’re responsible for making sure that the equipment is safe and okay to use,” said Dave Demchak, senior vice president or Connecticut Interlocal Risk Management Agency. “There is a gate keeper to make sure [the equipment] reaches all the appropriate standards at intake.”

Joseph Cirasuolo, head of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said it makes sense for the schools to assume liability.

“If we aren’t willing to waive that, then no one would ever donate,” he said. “If I give you a computer and I walk away from it and someone does harm, I should not be liable.”

Phillips said he understands why companies are opting not to donate their used equipment without liability protection, but said the trend is causing problems for the vo-tech system. He turned to a bookshelf filled with carburetors that a company donated years ago.

“We use to just have to pay just $50 to ship a whole box of these here. Now they won’t donate them and when we need new carburetors we will have to pay about $1,200 for each.”

Dave Benoff, who manages an aviation school in Simsbury, said this approach by the vo-techs is unfortunate because the companies he works with routinely come to him asking him if he knows anyone who could use various types of equipment.

But since the vo-techs are not an option, he said that equipment either sits in a factory gathering dust or is melted down.

“There are millions of dollars in what could be training equipment being destroyed,” he said.