A night of trying to separate fact, fiction on education

Torrington — Mike Baziruk had a microphone, his talking points, a packed auditorium at Torrington High School and, most importantly, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s attention.

It was his turn to play a game of fact or fiction with Malloy over the governor’s proposed education reform and budget package.

“How can the [vocational] technical high school system grow to meet the needs of Connecticut when there’s a $9.6 million budget reduction?” asked Baziruk, a graduate of Oliver Wolcott Technical High School. “Why is the technical high school system being underfunded again?”

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While it is true that the proposed budget would cut the 11,000-student district budget by 7 percent, Malloy quickly told Baziruk his concerns were based on fiction. The cuts are based on the savings realized from the wage freezes for employees achieved this year.

And the schools are not underfunded, Malloy added. The district spends $15,550 a year for each student it enrolls, well above the state and district averages where many of these schools are located.

“We are funding these programs pretty well,” Malloy said.

This was just one of the many exchanges Malloy is encountering at forums he is holding across the state to sell his vision of education reforms. Most of the confrontations thus far have been from teachers over his proposals on tenure and teacher evaluations.

The question about vocational funding was new, but teachers were out again at his third forum after previous meetings in Hartford and West Hartford. He interrupted one educator who lambasted him for drafting his reform legislation without input from the teachers’ unions, a claim Malloy branded as fiction.

“I don’t know what people are telling you, but that’s not true,” Malloy said.

He listed public meetings both he and his education commissioner, Stefan Pryor, have had with the state’s two teacher union leaders.

Earlier this week, he was in New York with Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers, who praised him for being so engaged with teachers. Local educators have not been as complimentary.

“Teacher fingerprints are not all over that bill,” Karri O’Toole, a teacher from the northwest part of the state, told Malloy.

While Malloy seemed to partially convince the vo-tech graduate that his concerns were fiction, he was less successful trying to convince teachers in the audience that he was not trying to get rid of tenure.

“Everyone’s talking about how we want to end tenure. That’s not true,” Malloy said. “I’m saying tenure is an appropriate protection, but tenure cannot be used to protect people who are underperforming. It’s not right to the kids.”

Malloy said he is simply calling for an inexpensive path to remove bad teachers.

“We all know they exist,” he told the audience, adding that it can cost $50,000 to remove an ineffective teacher.

Over the last three years, just 124 teachers have been forced to leave their jobs, which is less than 1 percent of the workforce, according to the State Department of Education.

Union leaders have said the number is low because school leaders are able to counsel subpar teachers out of the profession long before a termination process.

When governor insisted Thursday that he is not trying to do away with tenure, he was greeted with laughter from a skeptical audience that was heavy with teachers, as was a forum Tuesday night in West Hartford.

“Wrong,” one person yelled out.

Malloy’s next education forum is Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven.