Vo-tech school leaders warn cuts could mean fewer students

Mike Varonka teaches students at Emmett O'Brien Vocational Technical School

Mike Varonka teaches students at Emmett O’Brien Vocational Technical School in Ansonia.

Leaders of the state-operated vocational-technical high schools said Wednesday that cuts proposed by legislative leaders could lead to closing one of their schools or reducing the number of students the system enrolls.

“If additional cuts are proposed, then we would have to look very closely at our enrollment and our sites,” Nivea Torres, the superintendent of the 17-school network, told the State Board of Education. “It’s concerning.”

As state lawmakers work to close a deficit for the current fiscal year, legislative leaders have proposed cutting as much as $6.6 million from the vo-tech school system, which enrolls 10,800 students.

The $6.6 million, coupled with $2 million the system has already been cut by the governor this year, equates to a 5.2 percent cut.

Calling the proposed cuts “disturbing,” the chairman of the school system’s governing board said nobody wants to close a school and hopes the Democratic leadership will back off the drastic cut.

“We are going to continue to make our case,” said the chairman, Robert Trefry of Fairfield.

The system does not have many places left to cut, said Torres. Her approach has been largely to leave positions vacant as they come open.

“We do have a number of substitutes in a number of our classes. That is a growing concern for us,” she said.

Legislative leaders have been meeting with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in an attempt to find consensus on $350 million in cuts to close an expected deficit for the current fiscal year.

The last time drastic cuts were proposed to the vocational-technical high schools in 2012, school leaders planned on ending sports programs at the schools. After dozens of students protested at the state Capitol, legislative leaders restored much of the reduction.

In 2010, Malloy, who was running for governor, joined protestors in Stamford as the state planned to close the vocational school in his hometown. That school eventually closed temporarily so it could undergo major renovations and has reopened during his tenure.

Each year, about 6,000 students apply to the schools. Only 3,000 are offered enrollment.

“Students are interested in it, and careers are waiting,” said William Davenport, a State Board of Education member from Litchfield.

He said “it just blows my mind” that school officials are having to contemplate shrinking enrollment.

“We need to work on expanding,” he said during Wednesday’s state board meeting.

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