Vo-tech students, parents and staff rally against budget cuts

Standing outside the State Capitol Thursday, with about 50 vocational-technical school students, parents and teachers, Darlene Riquier said they can’t help but feel like their schools are being unfairly targeted for cuts.

“It’s been a constant slap in the face to these kids,” said the mother of a senior at Windham Tech and president of the Parent Teacher Organization. “These kids have really low morale right now.”


Darlene Riquier at the microphone surrounded by vo-tech students: ‘We will always be at the front of the line for cuts and that’s unfortunate’

Parents, teachers, students and officials of the state’s 16 vocational technical high schools say they have been on an emotional roller coaster as state lawmakers work to close a massive budget deficit.

“We are particularly concerned if we can maintain the system,” Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said earlier this month following a grim budget presentation on the vo-techs to the State Board of Education.

The uncertainty about the future of the state-run schools started back in February when Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed turning over responsibility for them to local and regional school districts. After an outcry from parents, towns, businesses and legislators, that proposal was tabled and a panel was created instead to determine how the state can shed management responsibilities of this 11,000-student school system in the coming years.

And then just when parents, students and teachers thought they had averted a major setback, Malloy announced July 15 he plans to cut nearly 10 percent of the total vocational-techical high school budget.

That $13 million a year trim translates to shutting down all adult education programs, eliminating more than 100 jobs and ending art, music and sports programs.

Those cuts did not sit well with Riquier or the students, parents and teachers from six vo-tech schools who traveled to the state Capitol Thursday to hold a five-hour rally.

“It seems like they want to cut everything,” said Jason Palma, a junior at Wilcox Tech who is studying automotive trade and a fullback on the football team. “It doesn’t seem like they want to afford us the same programs other schools have.”


Kristian Hurst and Jason Palma, athletes at Wilcox: Save our sports

Malloy’s cuts do not reduce state education funding to municipalities, which collectively have about 550,000 students.

Kristian Hurst, a junior at Wilcox on the football and baseball team, said if they gut all the extracurricular activities he may have to reconsider where to go to school.

“I have a big decision whether to stay at Wilcox or go to a public school,” he said. “It shouldn’t be like that.”

The cuts to the schools may be averted if the state employee unions vote to accept the labor concessions this time around. Malloy has said the likelihood of that happening is 50-50.

“If the unions ratify the agreement then it is the intention of the Administration to restrore services, which could include the vo-techs,” said a Malloy spokeswoman. “All of these cuts are difficult. … These cuts are impacting everyone.”

But with the unions giving themselves until mid-August to revote, parents Thursday said that may be too late for fall sports to be saved since many athletic conference deadlines are approaching.

Pat Ciccone, the superintendent of the schools, has said this uncertainty has also led to a drastic reduction in applications to attend the schools. The most recent enrollment numbers through the end of June show one-quarter of the schools each had more than 40 vacant seats remaining.

Riquier said those students who have elected to attend vo-tech schools are preparing themselves for cuts.

“We are trying to be realistic. We will always be at the front of the line for cuts and that’s unfortunate,” she said. “Hopefully sports aren’t slashed this year. We are all sitting on the edge of our seats waiting to see what happens.”