Last-minute agreement saves fall sports at state vo-tech schools

A last-minute reprieve has saved fall sports for more than 1,500 students at the state’s vocational-technical high schools, Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman announced late Wednesday, but the move will require the State Department of Education to identify budget cuts elsewhere.

“Gov. Malloy and the Office of Policy and Management have worked with [the SDE] to finance the fall sports program at vocation-technical schools across the state,” Coleman wrote in an email statement.

The statement follows a letter Coleman sent Wednesday to Malloy’s budget office saying the SDE would be able to find the funding to keep the fall sports open by making cuts or realizing savings in other parts of the Department’s budget.

“To be clear, this money will need to be found elsewhere,” he said. Just where these cuts will come from is unclear. It will cost the state $989,000 to keep boys football, girls volleyball, boys and girls soccer and cross country this fall that are expected to have about 1,530 students participating.

This last-minute rescue takes place just days before the deadline the 16 schools have to inform the state’s athletic conference it intends to participate in their leagues. There are an estimated 3,700 students that participate in sports at the vo-techs each year.

This announcement was made the same day students were rallying in Bridgeport in an attempt to convince Malloy to reconsider the $2.8 million a year cut. Students rallied at the State Capitol last week and a few days later Malloy promised to save the sports programs for the 3,700 students a year that participate in them if the state employee unions approve the concession package.

But earlier Wednesday, Superintendent Pat Ciccone told the State Board of Education that waiting for the state employees to approve the deal would have the teams not meeting their deadline to finalize their schedules with the state’s athletic conference.

Ciccone said the mid-August deadline unions have set for themselves to approve the concessions “would be way too late” for fall sports.

But she did offer a glimmer of hope, saying that she has been appealing to the Administration’s budget office to allow her to find the funds for sports by making nearly $1 million in cuts other places in her budget.

“I think we would be able to get the program back if we are able, with the support of [the governor’s budget office], the dollars we need to find,” she said, hopeful they would say yes.

Appearing on WTNH’s “Ask the Governor” earlier this week, Malloy said cutting the sports programs was not an easy choice, but the decision was between closing the schools or cutting non-essential programs.

“I don’t like it. I don’t support it. I really don’t want it to happen,” he said. “Everyone wants the budget cut but they don’t want it to be their program cut… I don’t want to make those cuts at all.”

And while the fall sports may have been saved, Coleman warned that winter and spring sports are still at risk if the state employees do not accept the concession package.

“This is not an indication that future seasons of sports programs at the vo-tech schools will be funded, should the agreement not be ratified,” he said.

Malloy said earlier this week he hoped to prevent closing these sports to students, and promised to reinstate the $2.8 million a year for sports if the unions approved the concessions agreement. But this agreement reached between Malloy and the SDE provides the funding for sports this fall, regardless of the outcome of the labor package.

The state board reacted to news of the cuts to the vo-techs with displeasure. Of the $67.5 million in cuts to education that will become a reality if the concessions are again rejected, 40 percent of those cuts are coming from the vocational-technical high schools.

“That’s huge,” said Stephen Wright, a board member from Trumbull. “I do think we are looking at a system that if we don’t change our ways, it’s going to go away.”

The remainder of the cuts come from central office positions and programs and regional services administered by the department.

Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said all these cuts are going to result in a strapped system struggling to accomplish its goals.

“We will have a very compromised system of education for our students,” he said. “We will certainly suffer.”

Note: A previous story quoted Patricia Ciccone, superintendent of the vocational-technical schools,  as saying that fall sports would be canceled. The article should have said that she said the ratification of the concession agreement would not come in time to save fall sports, but that she was waiting for approval from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s budget office to reinstate the program by allowing her to identify cuts elsewhere.