Not everyone celebrating Malloy’s school choice agenda

The state’s vocational and agricultural schools were largely left out of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s plans to increase funding and expand enrollment in nontraditional public schools.

“They forgot about us again,” Bill Davenport, director of one of the state’s 19 agricultural programs, said.

While the state has spent more than $200 million to build the schools for these agriculture programs, 30 percent of the seats in many of the schools are empty.

“They built all these schools, but they forgot about giving us the money to operate them,” Davenport said of the hundreds of seats that go unfilled each year.

These programs will collectively receive $5.1 million from the state this fiscal year, or about $1,400 per student.

By comparison, Malloy’s budget proposes a significant increase — to $11,000 per student — in state funding for charter schools at a total cost of $10 million a year. The administration is also proposing to open five new charter schools. Those schools will have one grade enrolled the first year, totaling 250 students, with hundreds of spaces to be added in subsequent years. At state’s 17 existing charter schools, Malloy’s budget provides funding for 381 new seats. Magnet schools outside the Hartford region will also receive an almost 10 percent increase in state funding, a $5 million cost to the state.

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Abby Rey (right) with classmates from her agriculture program: ‘We need adequate funding’

A report given Friday to the state school board says the state needs to significantly increase its spending on agricultural schools in order to fill them.

“The unfortunate thing is a lot of kids could get into the programs but can’t because of money,” said Terry Jones, a state board member and a farmer from Shelton.

Malloy’s budget proposal does provide an additional $750,000 to increase the $1,400 per student reimbursement for those schools that enroll more students from low-achieving school districts. But it provides no funding for new seats.

“Kids are being turned away,” said Abby Ray, a senior at Nonnewaug High School in Woodbury, one of many students who made their case before the State Board of Education Friday. “We need adequate funding.”

Benjamin Barnes, the governor’s budget director, in an interview after the meeting, said he agrees that these schools need to be filled, but that a major obstacle stands in the way: money.

“We are resource constrained,” Barnes said.

“It shouldn’t be interpreted that they are not important,” he said. “I would certainly like to have our facilities full.”

But the discussion on how to fund these programs adequately will have to wait for another year, he said.

“We need to address that over time,” he said.

Neither did the state’s 16 vocational-technical high schools receive additional funding in Malloy’s budget proposals to increase enrollment. The governor is recommending cutting their budget for the coming school year, but Barnes said those cuts are based on the savings realized from the wage freezes for employees achieved this year.

Pat Ciccone told the state board that her 11,000-student vo-tech district could accept more students if the money was there to hire more teachers.

“There could be more seats,” she said. For the coming school year her district received 7,800 applications for nearly 3,000 open seats.

Malloy’s budget does provide $500,000 for these schools to buy books, computers and other equipment, a portion of what the system told the Appropriations Committee in November that it needs. The vo-tech system is also waiting for Malloy to put several major school construction projects on the State Bond Commission agenda, Ciccone said.