After a two-year dry spell, millions heading to vo-tech schools

As students change classes at Ella T. Grasso Southeastern Technical High School in Groton, they sometimes have to avoid knocking over the buckets in the hallways collecting water from the leaking roof. The leak has caused the electricity to short out, which started a small fire at the school in January.

It wasn’t always this bad, but school officials’ calls for money from the state to fix Grasso’s roof and a list of other projects have been falling on deaf ears over the past few years.

Emmett O'Brien

Learning on outdated equipment at Emmett O’Brien

That all changed this year, and on Friday the State Bond Commission unanimously voted to send the 17-school system nearly $10 million for emergency building repairs and trade equipment. The schools have received $14.3 million so far this fiscal year from the state. During the previous two years, they received nothing for repairs.

In total, during the past six years the tech schools received $32 million from the state, according to the State Department of Education. The schools could receive as much as $28 million this year alone.

“We better step it up, and we better step it up quick,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who chairs the commission, said after the vote. “Some of the [equipment] is older than me… We’ve got to teach to the state of the art, or as close as we can get to it, and we are not doing that.”

Members of the State Board of Education said last year that it will take an additional $96 million to get the schools the equipment and building repairs they need. The General Assembly endorsed $56 million of those projects, but each project first must be approved by the Bond Commission. Malloy controls the commission’s agenda.

“This is both long overdue and necessary. These are great schools, and a lot of them have been neglected. They are a state responsibility,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, the longtime co-chairman of the Education Committee, during an interview after the commission’s vote. “This is the largest single year increase in the technical high school system that I’ve seen.”

Officials at the vocational-technical schools have routinely pleaded that they are struggling to get and maintain modern equipment for students to learn on.

“When my students get jobs, the equipment they are expected to work with is modern, stuff they don’t use here,” Mike Varonka, the head of the manufacturing department at Emmett O’Brien Vocational Technical School in Ansonia, told the Mirror in 2010.

Two years later, his school will finally be able to begin upgrading that equipment, and Grasso officials will be able to fix their roof.

“We are getting some major upgrades. This will allow us to match what the industry uses,” said Robert Axon, the principal of Oliver Wolcott Technical High School in Torrington.

As mayor of Stamford, Malloy was critical of how the state financed his local vo-tech school, J.M. Wright Technical High School, which eventually led to its closing. As governor, he is critical of the lack of funding for infrastructure in recent years because he sees these schools as a direct pipeline for employers looking to fill slots in manufacturing plants or for computer designers, both jobs he’s been told by businesses they can’t find anyone to fill.

“We have failed to prepare a replacement workforce,” he said.

Malloy said many of the vocational-technical high schools don’t have the appropriate software to learn computer-aided design.

“What we need to do is produce people that are prepared to run a $3 million piece of equipment cutting a $300,000 piece of metal,” he said.

Both the administration and Appropriations Committee budgets level fund the vo-techs’ operating budget, so enrollment is not expected to increase in the coming school year. The schools are slated, however, to get an additional $500,000 next year to purchase trade supplies like wood, metal and textbooks.

The superintendent of the 11,000-student district, Pat Ciccone, wrote lawmakers in her annual report that the amount the vo-techs receives for trade supplies each year is “falling woefully short of what is needed to maintain basic curriculum delivery.”

“This is a good faith effort to improve the situation and to make sure they have the supplies and equipment available. It’s a good start,” Fleischmann said.