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UPDATED: Holcombe abruptly resigns as Education Secretary

UPDATED: Holcombe abruptly resigns as Education Secretary
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Rebecca Holcombe
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe has abruptly resigned from her post just weeks before she was expected to unveil a statewide school district map to comply with Act 46.

She did not say why in a letter announcing her resignation, and declined to be interviewed about the decision.

“Last week, I submitted my resignation as Education Secretary to Governor Scott, effective April 1,” she told teachers and administrators in a letter on Tuesday. “It is time to move on.”

Gov. Phil Scott declined to give specifics about the circumstances of Holcombe’s departure and said he did not know what the secretary would do next.

“This was her decision and I value what she has given to the state over the last four years, what she has done for our cabinet. I valued her as a team members. She thought it was best for her to leave at this time,” he said at a press conference Tuesday afternoon.

Scott said he learned of the resignation at the end of last week. Asked if he thought it was unusual to get just one week notice from a departing cabinet member, he said he hasn’t been in office long enough to know.

Scott was asked whether differences of opinion with Holcombe on policy and cost containment proposals had spurred the decision. He responded that it was a “personal” decision.

“I believe in a team philosophy. We all get together. We voice our opinions and at the end of the day we come out with one voice,” he said.

Scott has also been pushing for further cuts to school budgets, despite towns having already approved budgets for the coming year that came well under the administrations spending expectations.

In her letter, Holcombe did not give a specific reason for departing, but said she believed Scott would see eye-to-eye with her successor. “I am confident the Governor, working with the state board of education, will appoint a secretary who shares his vision, and I wish him the best moving forward,” she wrote.

Holcombe, who holds a doctorate from Harvard University, has served as CEO of the state’s public education system since January 2014. Prior to her tenure as agency chief, she was a principal in the Rivendell School District.

Holcombe led efforts to develop personalized learning plans for students, a dual enrollment program for high school seniors that enables them to earn college credits and a controversial overhaul of state guidelines for private schools.

Over the past several years, she has overseen one of the most controversial reform efforts in the state’s history — Act 46 — the merger of dozens of school boards into consolidated districts.

However, Scott said he isn’t worried about delivering Act 46 final plans without the schools secretary, a Democrat who was his first cabinet appointment as governor.
Lawmakers said they were surprised by the news of Holcombe’s resignation.

Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol and chair of the House Education Committee, said he is worried about how the departure would impact the final stages of school district planning. “Of course I’m concerned. I was concerned even with her there,” he responded.

Rep. Kate Webb, D-Shelbourne, shared those concerns, saying Holcombe was a “true visionary at a critical time for Act 46. She had a deep and broad understanding of the legislation.”

The Secretary of Education is expected to recommend a final plan on June 1 that will move any unmerged school districts into larger governance units and complete the new school district map. The state board takes over from there and will work with the secretary to submit the final plan.

State Board Chair Krista Huling said she found out about Holcombe’s sudden exit on Tuesday, the same as everyone else. She said the board will hold an emergency meeting this week to start the process of searching for a new permanent secretary.

“This is a tough position to fill. The person serves at the leisure of the governor, it is not very high paying — many of the great education leaders in this state would halve their salaries for double the work — this is why losing Holcombe is such a big loss for the state,” she said.

Huling said she isn’t worried about Act 46 or the final district map, as there are many capable people at the Education Agency who are up for the task. Scott also said he did not envision any issue getting the job done.

Scott said he will appoint an interim secretary in the coming days and will work with the State Board of Education to appoint a new permanent secretary “who will build on the progress Rebecca has achieved in her tenure.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rebecca Holcombe was the superintendent of the Rivendell School District. She was a principal in the district.

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