Students of state vocational technical schools carried signs and chanted slogans like “save our sports” and “don’t punish us” on the north steps of the Capitol Thursday morning as they protested proposed cuts that decimate their sports and arts programs.
The rally was the most recent of a series of protests across Connecticut as the public reacts to the $1.6 billion in cuts under consideration if a labor concession deal fails.
Without a deal the governor has proposed saving more than $9 million over both years of the state budget by eliminating the arts and music programs and suspending the athletic programs at the state’s vocational technical schools.
When Windham Technical High School senior Ryan Hulsart heard about the cuts on the news, he contacted school officials, reached out to lawmakers and organized the rally over Facebook. He said over 300 people agreed to attend on the social networking site and was a little disappointed by the turnout of around 50.
Still, Hulsart said it was important the public realizes the damage the cuts would cause and hopefully save his school’s sports program.
“We’re here to try to make some noise about it and see if we can’t get this turned around,” he said.
The 16-year-old football player said he’s hoping the cuts won’t be necessary if unions approve the clarified labor agreement negotiated with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.
“It’s up to the unions to decide whether they’re going to keep these cuts or give us back our programs,” he said.
Hulsart’s mother Robin agreed that now the decision is on the state employee unions but she noted that it was the governor’s decision to put the cuts on the table in the first place.
She pointed to a recent news article detailing state spending on a failed resort in Haddam and additional spending on a feasibility plan to determine what to do with the property.
“There are clearly ways to balance the budget without cutting sports for kids,” she said.
Jeff Belanger, athletic director and basketball coach at Hulsart’s school, said he was hoping unions accepted the agreement but he agreed with Robin, saying education funding for students shouldn’t be up for grabs.
“Hopefully it doesn’t come down to the vote. They should not make these cuts, concessions or no concessions. Athletics are an important part of the educational process,” he said.
Belanger is a member of a vocational technical school administrators union, one of the groups that voted overwhelmingly for the first agreement and will not be taking a rank and file vote on the clarified deal. Instead, his union leader will be casting a vote in favor of it when it comes time for the final leadership vote.
He said that, while he understands why members of some unions would be upset by losing the chance to vote again, the decision makes sense for his group. For the first vote 98 percent of the group’s voting members turned out and 85 percent of them approved of the deal.
But now, in the middle of summer, it would be hard to get anywhere near the same turnout from a group of school administrators on summer break.
“You’re just not going to get 98 percent to vote again. Everyone’s away for the summer,” he said.
Tony Bonito, head football coach of the joint Coventry-Windham Technical football program, said practices are supposed to begin in August but the program has been devastated.
“At this point I’ve lost half my players and almost 100 percent of my funding,” he said.
When asked he still had a job Bonito turned to Belanger and asked, “I don’t know, do I still have a job?”
Bonito said he will still be coaching the remaining Coventry players but he will be doing it without out the state stipend he used to receive.
The idea that state vocational technical schools were being singled out was troubling for Rep. Tim Ackert, R-Coventry, who came out to support the rallying students. He said the vocational schools get targeted too often.
“We look at sports, music and arts as things all schools have. So why are picking on this group? We worked very hard as legislators to make sure that our towns got the funding that they needed so they didn’t have to make drastic cuts and those cuts would have been similar to what’s proposed here. So if we work hard at that why has this not become an issue?” he said.
Ackert said that because the legislature voted to give the governor additional recession authority, lawmakers have made themselves helpless. He said he voted against giving Malloy the additional power.
“Now we don’t even have a say in it. All we can do is be like our constituents and cry out from the sidewalk,” he said.