Christine Stuart photo
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz (Christine Stuart photo)

The man who is expected to be the next Speaker of the House did not mince words Thursday when he criticized the state Education Department’s suggestion it would close two vocational-technical high schools to find $16.3 million in savings.

House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he was “shocked, disgusted, and outraged all at once” when he learned of the suggested. At a press conference in his Hartford office Thursday, Aresimowicz called on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to stop it from moving forward.

At an unrelated event in New Haven, Malloy said there’s “no plan to close schools.” He said the Education Department was asked to submit budget proposals to his office for consideration.

“We can’t be thought police,” Malloy said. “…it’s a discussion. Not a plan.”

He said Thursday’s press conference was an overreaction by lawmakers.

But just in case the governor was wondering Aresimowicz said they still want it off the table.

Further, Aresimowicz said the 17 vo-tech high schools should not be under the control of the state Board of Education because their needs are different than traditional public schools. He said they need to adapt quickly to the needs of private manufacturers and getting approval from the state board for some of these partnerships is too time consuming.

Rep. Michelle Cook, D-Torrington, said “there’s no way that if you are not in that system that you understand the needs of that system.”

She called the decision to close two of the 17 high schools “shortsighted and irresponsible.”

There’s no indication as to which two schools would be closed.

State Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell pitched the closure to the state Board of Education Wednesday as part of her agency’s solutions to cutting 10 percent from its budget over the next year.

A 10 percent cut, which all state agencies have been asked to give to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration by the end of the day Friday, would amount to an $82 million reduction in the Education Department’s budget. Education grants to cities and towns would not be impacted by the request to reduce the budget 10 percent.

“This is real and it’s real for the technical high schools,” Wentzell said Wednesday. She said the request was straightforward and she reminded the board, who voted in favor of submitting the proposal to the governor’s budget office, that it was just the beginning of the process.

Aresimowicz said Wentzell’s decision to put the closure of two vo-tech schools in that proposal was tone deaf to what the state has been doing to attract manufacturing and aerospace companies to stay. Last week, the General Assembly approved a $220 million economic incentive package for Lockheed Martin to stay in Stratford and build 200 CH-53K King Stallion Helicopters.

Malloy administration officials suggested that the investment is expected to maintain about 24,601 jobs in smaller manufacturing companies which supply parts to Sikorsky to build the helicopters.

Tom Auray of Bridgeport Fittings, who attended Aresimowicz’s press conference Thursday, said he has about a dozen employees who were students in the vo-technical high schools.

“Bridgeport Fittings really relies on the vo-tech system to provide the skilled work candidates to our business,” Auray said. “If we did not have the technical school system it would put us in a monumental setback.”

He said 48 of their 205 workers will be in retirement age, so they have to keep filling up the pipeline.

Aresimowicz said it’s too soon to say where they would be able to find the money to keep the schools open because the budget process is just beginning. However, he said the vo-tech schools are a top priority for the House Democratic caucus.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said he too wants to protect the vo-tech schools from budget cuts.

“Closing two of Connecticut’s vo-tech schools would be completely and totally unacceptable,” Looney said. “The educational investments we are making in advanced manufacturing career training are creating a pipeline for workers which have helped Connecticut grow and retain jobs at Electric Boat, Sikorsky, Pratt & Whitney and all along their supply chains.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said if the cuts end up happening it’s because the Democrats allowed them to occur.

She said Democratic lawmakers gave Malloy additional rescission authority when they approved the budget in May.

“It is the Democratic budget that Democrats voted for and it was the Democrats who willingly ceded greater authority for the Governor to make cuts that they are now talking about,” Klarides said. “Five weeks before the election they are complaining about a situation that they created.”

But the proposed cuts are not part of the governor’s rescissionary authority.

Last month, Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, asked all state agencies to submit proposals that would result in a 10 percent reduction in their 2017 budget. The reductions may be included as part of the governor’s two-year budget proposal that he will give to the General Assembly in February.

The deadline for agencies to submit their proposals is Friday, Oct. 7.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the Democratic majority doesn’t need to beg Malloy “not to do something.”

“They are the ones with the authority to call a special session today so the legislature can begin addressing current and future budget problems right away and offering our own ideas,” Fasano said. “But instead of action, we get a press conference.”