For good reason, they say cutting Social Security is the third rail in American politics. For the moment in Connecticut, the untouchable seem to be vocational-technical high schools.
All you have to do is talk hypothetically about closing two of the state’s 17 vo-tech high schools and people on both sides of the aisle act as if the state of the republic is at risk.
Faced with the prospect of a $1.2 billion budget deficit for the next fiscal year, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wisely asked department and agency heads to find 10 percent savings in their budgets as part of his plan to mitigate the projected shortfall.
So Education Commissioner Diane Wentzell came up with the idea of closing “at least two schools” and suspending all athletic programs as part of a plan to save $16.3 million from the $163 million the department spends on the vo-tech system. Wentzell did not identify any specific schools she would target for closing.
The reaction was swift and furious. House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz proclaimed himself “shocked, disgusted, and outraged all at once.”
“That idea is shortsighted. It’s exactly the opposite direction of the way we should be going,” added Sen. Gayle Slossberg during a tour of the Bristol Technical Education Center, the smallest of the vo-tech schools.
For his part, Malloy seemed to distance himself from the idea. He insisted Wentzell was merely complying with a request for possible savings and that there’s “no plan to close schools,” even as he declined to rule it out.
“We can’t be thought police . . . it’s a discussion. Not a plan,” Malloy said.
Now I take a back seat to no one in supporting technical education. As I wrote in a column two years ago, college is not for everyone. We need skilled tradespeople: carpenters, plumbers, electricians. Those are steady respectable jobs with good wages and benefits. And best of all, they’re more secure than lots of white-collar jobs. An IT support desk job can be sent out to India, but you can’t outsource your auto mechanic.
So common sense tells us it’s not a good idea to cut funding from vo-tech schools. And clearly those schools should not be singled out for budget cuts. But of course that’s not what’s happening. The Malloy administration’s requests for proposed cuts are supposed to include every department in the state government.
If you’re opposed to the idea of closing two vo-tech schools, I guess the question you’d have to ask yourself is whether such an action would result in less opportunity for students seeking that kind of education. In the case of the vo-tech schools, I’m not convinced that closing two of them would necessarily cause undue harm to the system.
The school-age population in Connecticut and across the northeast is in decline. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, we rank 47th among the 50 states in birth rates. And as couples have fewer children, there are no signs that the trend will reverse itself anytime soon.
At some point, we’re going to have to start closing schools or consolidating school districts or both. It sounds counterintuitive but small high schools are expensive to operate and they are limited in the academic and extracurricular programs they can provide.
And from 2003 to 2014, the state’s vo-tech enrollments dropped by more than 500 students, from 11,048 to 10,506. We are told there are more applicants in the vo-tech schools than spots available, but that seems more a result of too many closed shops districtwide and not for a lack of school campuses themselves.
So given the school-age population trends, it should not be out of bounds to consider closing one or more vo-tech schools. Of the 17, Bristol is by far the smallest. As of Feb. 1, 2014, (the most recent figures on the school’s website), the Bristol Technical Education Center had only 146 students, compared to 642 at Oliver Wolcott in Torrington and 836 at Platt Tech in Milford.
If Bristol were to close, it would no doubt inconvenience some of its students. But couldn’t most of them go to nearby E.C. Goodwin Technical High School in New Britain or even Kaynor Technical High School in Waterbury?
There are other vo-tech schools that are relatively close to each other that could be targeted for consolidation down the road as the school-age population continues to decline — Middletown and Meriden; Norwich and Groton; Danielson and Willimantic.
Don’t get me wrong. If the system itself isn’t being fully funded, then the state Board of Education should do what it takes to secure the resources the vo-tech schools need in order to be at capacity. But consolidating schools is a separate matter. Vo-tech campuses should not be deemed untouchable by politicians playing to the crowd or by parents themselves who are unduly worried that the system itself will be put on the chopping block.