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Vocational High School needs funding to keep pace

Mark DiLorenzo, a manufacturing advisor at the Westfield Vocational Technical High School, explains to Mayor Michael Boulanger what and how much the manufacturing department really needs to fully educate its students. Reminder Publications photo by Courtney Llewellyn
By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD Westfield Vocational Technical High School, with a population of about 500 students, could do a lot with the $750,000 bond it's been promised. "It's been one full year since we met to discuss the bonding issue," Paul Asselin, chair of the General Advisory Council, said. "We were told the check was in the mail. The check hasn't come yet."

To further discuss that issue, the Westfield School Committee and the Westfield Vocational Technical High School (WVTHS) Advisory Committee met Jan. 28. Members of the two groups split up and were taken on guided tours of the high school, which needs money for almost all its various departments.

Mayor Michael Boulanger was part of a group with superintendent Shirley Alvira and WVTHS director Hilary Weisgerber. As Boulanger was led through the manufacturing, carpentry, computers and networking and horticulture departments, he heard firsthand from the department heads what exactly was needed and how important the bond money will be.

"I believe this made a big impression on both the mayor and the two new School Committee members [Laura Maloney and Kevin Sullivan] because we were educating them on what's available here and what's needed," Weisgerber told Reminder Publications. "It's important to visualize what's needed." She added that she believed the two groups will move forward with the bond more quickly now.

The school has not been invested in by the city since the 1993-94 expansion, according to Asselin.

Asselin told those in attendance at the joint meeting the school is suffering from a lack of equipment and a lack of transportation to get students out to places where equipment is available.

"There is no school-wide Internet system," he said. "A safety inspection from November 2007 found 66 issues, 29 of which are considered 'serious.' We need to work together to invest in the future of this school.

"If we don't fund this school properly, the students will fall behind and the long term health of the city is dependent on this school," he continued.

Skilled labor may bring more jobs to the city of Westfield and that in turn will bring in more tax money, Asselin explained.

The first stop on the mayor's tour was the manufacturing department. Clem Focci, head teacher, told Boulanger's group that Westfield is "a town of manufacturing technology." A lot of the equipment in that manufacturing department, however, is out of date -- from items like the computers that cannot support newer software packages to large manufacturing machines.

"We need to come up with ways other than the school budget to fund this program," Focci said. "We need to work smarter, not harder." He suggested one way to do this was to bring in new computers and another instructor so students could use the manufacturing equipment more than three periods every other week, which is what is provided by one teacher now. Boulanger acknowledged one of the biggest issues in the department was the lack of personnel.

"The bonding issue started with the manufacturing department over a decade ago," manufacturing advisor William Amanti said. He added the school's annual golf tournament does help the department by raising approximately $75,000 a year, but it's not enough.

The manufacturing department received only $6,000 in this year's budget, Weisgerber said.

"If we can't keep the school at a certain level of technology, our kids won't be getting jobs and we won't be bringing business into the city," advisor Mark DiLorenzo said. The newest piece of equipment is a six-month-old Trak Lathe, while other machines are more than two decades old.

Old and outdated equipment was an issue throughout the other departments visited by the touring group. Mark Stewart of the ornamental horticulture department said, "We do the best we can with whatever we have." The van the department uses is 13 years old and continually requires more maintenance; the greenhouse needs to be remodeled to match industry standards.

"Not one computer in here is ready to run Windows Vista," Jeff Richardson, head of the computers and networking department (CNET) said, "and we have 60 computers in this department." The CNET department is also working with only two wireless routers and Richardson said they need at least eight more.

While manufacturing is the most expensive of all the departments, carpentry is also in need of large sum of money to update its dust removal system.

"The dust system doesn't work the way it should," instructor Greg Gomes explained. "Repairs need to be made. It's a safety issue. Right now it has to be taken care of and repaired yearly." He added the department's either had to spend or has been fined between $2,000 and $3,000 a year to take care of the system. This is an issue for the entire school because without proper ventilation, the dust could spread everywhere.

"We have been living off revolving accounts with the money the departments bring in," Weisgerber stated. "We need to fix all this because our students stay in the city, work in the city and buy homes in the city."

The director of WVTHS hasn't given up hope, however.

"Once I heard that $750,000 number, we all sat down to look at the size and scope of each program," she explained. "We came up with our five year capital improvement plans and gave everyone a dollar figure and told them to come back with priority lists. This started in January 2007.

"The wheels of justice move slowly, but we're feeling very positive about the support the School Committee and the General Advisory Committee show toward our goals and initiatives," Weisgerber continued. "They fully understand the value of vocational technical education in the city of Westfield."

While no official date has been set, voting on the bonding of the school could be taking place in the next few weeks.