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Scott now says education secretary needs education experience

Scott now says education secretary needs education experience
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Krista Huling
Krista Huling is chair of the State Board of Education. Photo by Bob LoCicero

Gov. Phil Scott said that Vermont’s next education secretary should have experience as an educator after all. He initially said in a letter that he wanted someone with “experience managing complex issues (not necessarily education).”

The notion that the education secretary might not have an education background drew criticism from some members of the State Board of Education, which recommends candidates to the governor. At least one member, however, agrees with Scott that a skilled CEO would do well in the position, regardless of their field of experience.

However, state statute says that candidates for the position must have “expertise in education management and policy.”

Scott said at a press conference Thursday that his letter was only meant to urge the board of education to cast a broad net in their search.

“Having an education background is important, obviously,” he told reporters, noting that the state board would conduct the actual search. He can ask the board for more candidates if he doesn’t like any of their selections.

“I just wanted to make sure we looked broadly, make sure that we looked outside the box, because you never know,” Scott said. “By statute, they need to have some education background, but I don’t want to preclude anyone from being moved forward.”

The governor pointed out, by way of example, that Human Services Secretary Al Gobeille is a restaurateur, and prior to his tenure on the Green Mountain Care Board had no experience in government, health care or human services.

The State Board of Education issued an informational sheet outlining its search last week. The deadline for applicants is April 30. Candidates must have knowledge of public education policies, knowledge of fiscal policies and funding issues, executive leadership, experience in public relations and experience driving organizational change.

The education secretary oversees a $1.7 billion annual budget, the state’s largest single expenditure. And whoever replaces Rebecca Holcombe, who abruptly resigned at the end of March, will arrive during a crucial stage in implementing Act 46, an ambitious and controversial school consolidation law.

Scott has described Holcombe’s resignation as a “personal” decision, though Holcombe’s husband said it was professional. Neither Scott or Holcombe has offered any details about the departure, but the governor has made a point that saying whoever take the position next must share his view on the importance of cost-containment in school budgets.

Holcombe started as education secretary under former Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, before becoming the Scott’s first cabinet appointment for after he entered office in 2017.

Deputy Education Secretary Heather Bouchey, a former director of the Leahy Center for Rural Students at Lyndon State College, was appointed last week to serve as the acting secretary until a permanent replacement is found, filling a hole that some worried would delay reform efforts overseen by the agency.

State political leaders sent out a statement last week saying that Holcombe’s resignation would not set back their timeline for Act 46, responding to constituents who wondered if the state might press pause until a new education chief was brought on board.

Scott has said the agency is plenty of capable people to pick up the slack after Holcombe’s departure. Agency leaders will need to finalize consolidation discussions with local districts and draw up a draft districting map by June, when it will be sent to the state board for another round of hearings.

There is also still some uncertainty about school budgets, which were passed by a vast majority of districts during Town Meeting Day. Scott says that the budgets are still too high, and has asked state lawmakers to find a way of reducing costs. A decision will have to be made by the end of the legislative session in about a month.

Here’s the full list of prerequisites for the next education secretary, according to the state board:

  • knowledge of PreK-12 public educational policy and practice;
  • familiarity with school governance structures and practices typical of Vermont or similar states;
  • experience with governance and legislative entities at the state and local levels, as well as executive and leadership experience;
  • knowledge of fiscal and tax policy and education-funding issues at the federal, state, and local levels;
  • expertise in framing, communicating, and advancing public and/or business policy issues, options, strategies, and tactics;
  • diversity of educational experiences and background;
  • experience driving organizational effectiveness and continuous improvement in large organizations;
  • effectiveness in communications, oral, written and in multiple media, with the public, with special constituencies and interest groups, with decision-makers, and with employees.
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