Reaction to the proposed closure of the Bristol Technical Education Center ranged Friday from vows to fight for its doors to stay open to acceptance that it may need to shut down as part of the state’s bid to close a multi-billion dollar deficit.
School Superintendent Philip Streifer said that given the magnitude of the cuts the state needs to make to balance its books, "something has to give somewhere."
Though he said he “would certainly hate to have those kids lose that opportunity,” Streifer said the loss of the Bristol technical school may be necessary in order to spread the financial pain.
Mayor Art Ward said it would be "very shortsighted" for the state to shut down the school in its quest to save money.
"The Bristol tech school was really starting to come into its own," Ward said, and deserves to remain open to educate young people and adults for whom learning a trade can be the ticket to a successful career.
Frank Johnson, director of the Manufacturing Alliance of Connecticut, said that closing the school would disappoint its students, faculty and the city.
But, he said, “technical students did get an education before that school was there and they would still get one.”
Closing the school is “one of the ideas that has to be looked at if you’re going to cut state spending,” Johnson said. “It’s not an inexpensive venture to have that satellite school there.”
Tom Murphy, spokesman for the state’s education department, said it would like to keep Connecticut’s vocational system intact.
Murphy said officials hope that the proposed closing of the Bristol tech school “won’t happen.”
But, he said, they also recognize the difficult economic times and the need by upper level decision-makers to tackle some tough choices as they try to deal with the financial crisis.
“We’re hoping for the best,” Murphy said.
If the school is closed, he said, the state may try to reopen it when the economy is better.
Murphy said the Bristol school offers one or two years of vocational training – along with core academic subjects – but doesn’t confer degrees. That’s still done at the hometown high schools of the 110 students who attend the technical school, he said.
The other technical school on the chopping block – in Stamford – has suffered from a sinking enrollment for years, he said. It only has a third of its 600-student capacity and just 30 students have sought so far to attend next fall.
Bristol is “close to capacity,” Murphy said, and both students and their parents have been happy with it.
If the school is shut down, the students would return to their home high schools, Murphy said.
Mary Ellen Pacific, who called herself the “substitute principal,” refused to allow a reporter or photographer to talk to anyone at the school Friday or even to observe classrooms. She had no comment on its possible closure and said Murphy alone could say anything.
State Sen. Tom Colapietro, a Bristol Democrat, said Friday that people go to the school “so they can learn a career.”
“That’s one of the best schools in the state,” Colapietro said.
For those who are laid off and attending to learn new skills, the senator said, “What are they supposed to do? Bury them?”
He said he’ll fight hard to keep the school open.
“If I have my way, it’s not going to happen,” Colapietro said.
Streifer said that the regular school systems across the state are facing what amounts to a substantial cut in aid if they receive the flat funding that officials appear poised to deliver. Given that costs are up, that means there's less money to spend to provide education to the vast majority of students.
Streifer said the state's vocational education system has to share in the sacrifices.
If that means closing the Bristol technical school, Streifer said, "so be it."
He said the crucial issue is that the General Assembly and Gov. Jodi Rell make the tough choices and let municipalities and school systems know what to expect.
"The legislature needs to act and we need to know," Streifer said.
Johnson said there will need to be spending cuts and reasonable tax hikes to pull it off. If there are going to be cuts, he said, there will be pain involved.
The mayor said that given the country's manufacturing decline, it doesn't make sense to gut the educational institutions that can help turn the economy around. He said businesses need the school to help get the trained workers they need.
Ward said he understands the state's desire to trim spending, but doesn't believe that closing the school is the way to balance the budget.
The mayor said he's been at the school at least four times since taking office and seen firsthand how it helps some students develop hands-on skills that can turn them into tomorrow's plumbers and other tradespoeple.
"Not everybody's college oriented," Ward said, and it doesn't make sense to turn away those who need other options if they are to contribute as much as they can to society.
"We need the plumbers. We need the HVAC technicians," Ward said.
He said the school is the first step for many to get "a meaningful occupation" that can make them successful and productive members of the community.
Ward said he hopes the city's legislative delegation manages to keep funding for the school in the final budget, which is slated for adoption within days.
Johnson said it’s difficult for politicians to make cuts in order to balance the budget, particularly if it involves items in their districts.
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” Johnson said.
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