Education Secretary Holcombe quits. Who will follow?

Changing horses in midstream is risky business, but that’s what’s happening at the Vermont Agency of Education.

For reasons that have not been disclosed, Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe abruptly resigned, giving just a one-week notice nine weeks before she was scheduled to issue orders for statewide school district consolidations.

Her resignation has baffled school officials around the state. There’s been no talk of health or personal problems, which makes it likely that Holcombe was just fed up with some aspect of her work.

The leading contender is Gov. Phil Scott, who twice in two years has tried to balance the state budget on the backs of local school districts, demanding action months after it made any sense.

Last month, the governor asked school districts to cut their budgets — which voters had already approved on Town Meeting Day — by $40 million to cover a shortage in the state education fund. If he wanted school districts to cut their budgets, he needed to ask last fall, when the budgets were being developed. He did ask for a 2.5 percent cap on school budget increases, and school districts did even better than that, holding the line at 1.5 percent. As a reward, Scott asked them to ax $40 million after the fact.

For Holcombe, who tried to shepherd school districts through merger mania and also find ways to shave their budgets, the timing of Scott’s cost cutting must have felt like a knife in the back. The governor undercut her credibility, and that could well be the reason she’s gone now.

This isn’t just bureaucratic infighting. Vermont is in the midst of perhaps its biggest public-school revolution, in which every school district has been forced to consider merging with its neighbors.

Districts that haven’t merged were waiting for Holcombe to unveil a school consolidation map on June 1, which could force standalone districts to become part of a larger group.

And then there’s the infighting that can follow a merger.

Holcombe’s role was to hold the hands of the new, merged school boards and point out the obvious: Vermont public school enrollment declined from 103,000 in 1997 to 78,300 in 2015, a staggering 24 percent decrease, and is still going down. The state government pays for public schools, and it’s neither financially wise nor educationally effective to have kids rattling around in half-empty schools. Bigger schools can offer more programs that kids need in the 21st century.

Regional schools have succeeded in Vermont for decades. Cute, cuddly community schools fit the Vermont Life stereotype, but educationally speaking, their time is past. Schools also function as community centers, but should the state have to finance them? The Legislature’s answer is no.

Previous education secretaries have danced timidly around the consolidation issue, but the Legislature did the fiscally prudent thing in passing Act 46, requiring districts to seriously consider mergers, and Holcombe has applied the hammer.

Scott has been in know-nothing mode in recent days. Asked if he thought it was unusual for a cabinet secretary to give just one week’s notice, he said he hasn’t been in office long enough to know. That’s just silly; the man was the lieutenant governor for six years and spent 10 years in the state Senate.

And, he issued a letter to lawmakers listing 13 bills “containing new or higher taxes, fees or expenses I cannot support.” Reporters had to point out to him that some of those 13 bills do not actually include new taxes or fees. For instance, Scott opposes S.260, which begins the hunt for a funding mechanism to pay for a federally mandated waterways cleanup. It doesn’t actually cost anything. In a press conference that began just as the Senate was unanimously approving S.260, Scott was surprised when reporters said it was cost-free.

“I’m not familiar exactly with the details of the bill,” the governor said, “but if it includes a tax or fee, then I would be opposed.” He said his staff highlighted S.260 as containing a tax or fee. Maybe he and his staff could read the bill.

“Education secretaries come and go, but your schools and the communities you create around them will continue to prepare our children for a strong Vermont future,” Holcombe wrote in her resignation letter. She said she has strived for “equity in access, excellence in opportunity and affordability in delivery.”

Given how the governor crushed Holcombe’s credibility, how can he find a replacement smart and strong enough to handle Vermont’s education revolution?

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