The carpenters' last stand

Groton — The carpentry program at Grasso Tech is scheduled to be shuttered at the end of this school year, but instructor Gene Chaude is reinvigorating his efforts to keep it going.

He's gotten support from state legislators, construction contractors, union leaders and former students — and more than 200 shares on a passionate Facebook post on April 3.

Chaude sees a certain irony in Grasso Tech continuing to offer two other programs in the architecture and construction cluster — plumbing and heating, and electrical — but not carpentry.

"If there's no structure, it kind of limits what the other trades have the ability to do," he commented.

Chaude, a carpentry instructor at Grasso Tech for 15 years, said he was informed in November 2015 of the Connecticut Technical High School System Board's decision to phase out the carpentry program at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School.

The Connecticut Technical High School System is now known as the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System, or CTECS.

Chaude said he initially was told the program wouldn't take any freshmen going forward and would end in 2019. Last school year, the end date was bumped up to 2018.

Administrators "met with the students who were in 10th grade and basically informed them that the program wasn't going to be available their senior year, and they gave them some options at the time to transfer out," he said.

All students transferred to another program or went to their local high school — except one.

"I liked carpentry the most, so I didn't want to go," said the holdout, Joseph Lanphere. Next year, he will be doing carpentry work at Yankee Remodeler in New London and academics at Grasso Tech.

Five seniors are graduating from the carpentry program this year. Chaude said the most students the program has had in one class is 15, and by contract it can have up to 18.

Raymond Stawski was the carpentry department head at Grasso Tech but transferred to Norwich Tech last year. Chaude said if the carpentry program is discontinued at Grasso Tech, he is protected by union contract and will have a job in another CTECS school.

At the time of the decision, the CTECS superintendent was Nivea Torres. She resigned in April 2017, after being suspended as state officials investigated her payments to a public relations firm.

Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Wihbey was named interim superintendent, and Connecticut Department of Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell appointed him to fill the position permanently on Jan. 30. Wihbey was on vacation this past week and could not be reached for comment.

Peter Yazbak, spokesperson for the Department of Education, said the board determined that Norwich Technical High School should absorb the carpentry program because it had the lowest enrollment of any program at Grasso Tech.

Principal Pat Feeney said she was not part of the decision-making process but said "it was felt that [Norwich Tech] could focus and strengthen their program there, as we have done with one of their programs right before that."

She was referring to the elimination of drafting at Norwich Tech and said that such regionalization is "not an uncommon practice."

New life pumped into old fight

According to the Dec. 11, 2015, minutes from a meeting of the board's Subcommittee on Quality and Policy — which was held via teleconference — Torres said the phase-out of the carpentry program was in response to the board's charge to create "centers of excellence."

The board endorsed the renovation plan presented for Grasso Tech, which only listed electrical and plumbing & heating under the construction cluster, not mentioning carpentry anywhere.

Yazbak said when the renovation plan was being formulated, CTECS met extensively with Electric Boat and its subcontractors to gauge the industry's hiring needs.

Electric Boat spokeswoman Liz Power said the company does hire Grasso Tech graduates, but its focus areas are in design/drafting, welding and steel trades. She added that EB does have a number of carpenters on site but does not show any carpentry openings at this time.

A board meeting at Grasso Tech with public participation originally was scheduled for Dec. 15, 2015, but Feeney emailed faculty on Dec. 14 to say it was cancelled "due to unforeseen circumstances," and the meeting was held Jan. 19, 2016.

Several people advocated for continuation of the carpentry program: Chaude; Marian Galbraith, then mayor of the City of Groton; Harry Watson, then a member of the Groton Town Council; Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague; David Preka, owner of The Advanced Group; Karl Bagwell, president of Yankee Remodeler; Steven Reynolds, who had a home built by the Grasso Tech carpentry program; Anna Lonergan, parent of a carpentry major; and Eric Sabo, head of the plumbing department at Grasso Tech.

To Chaude, the past few weeks have seemed like a good time to renew his advocacy for the program, in part because he was motivated by a late-February letter from a bummed alumnus, and because Wihbey is now the permanent CTECS superintendent.

Chaude also "didn't see much sense in contacting the state senators" last year when they were tied up with the budget.

Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, was not in the General Assembly when the decision was made in 2015 and said she first heard about the closure of the carpentry program about a week ago.

"It makes no sense to me whatsoever, seeing as we have this demand for skilled labor like we've never seen before," she said, adding that Groton didn't have this kind of demand three years ago.

Noting that "government does not work quickly," Somers said to have the decisions "be re-evaluated or have it be slowed down is going to be very difficult, but I'm going to keep pushing."

Expressing similar skepticism was Ed Leavy, president of the State Vocational Federation of Teachers, the union representing CTECS personnel.

Leavy said the board clearly has the right to eliminate the program, and so the union has no avenue for a grievance. He does not understand the rationale of regionalization, saying a district is not going to bus a kid far away.

Chaude said the cut score to get into Norwich Tech is higher than it is for Grasso Tech, so many students wouldn't have the option of going there.

"We're having trouble finding good, qualified help"

Karl Bagwell, president of Yankee Remodeler, was a Grasso Tech carpentry student in the school's first graduating class in 1980. Now, he has eight full-time tech school graduates working for him.

He said most of his employees are 50 or older, and he needs younger people to join the workforce and keep his company going.

Greg Ugalde, president of the Torrington-based T&M Building Co. and first vice chairman of the National Association of Home Builders, said Connecticut was one of the first states to implement a curriculum allowing students to work on construction sites — and that it's been a great success.

"Nationally, one of the biggest problems that we face as an industry is developing our workforce," he said. Ugalde travels the country and sees work shortages that are "going to take a lot of time, energy and effort to fill."

Norton Wheeler, owner of Mystic River Building Company, said of Grasso Tech carpentry students, "I would hire two guys right now if they had two people who were graduating who didn't already have a position or job to move into."

He added, "We're having trouble finding good, qualified help, and I'd prefer to be hiring kids coming right out of tech school, because they have the technical experience and training without all the bad habits."


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