By EMERSON LYNN
Rebecca Holcombe’s surprise resignation as the state’s education secretary has put the governor and the state board of education in the delicate position of having to find a suitable replacement and to continue the consolidation process of Act 46.
The board is looking for immediate guidance from the governor’s office – in the form of an interim appointment – and the governor’s office is pushing for the board to step up its recruitment of Ms. Holcombe’s successor.
Meanwhile, the governor sent the board a letter to the board profiling the abilities he’s looking for in the next secretary. It’s in his letter that the governor’s direction becomes clear.
He wants an educational system that costs less than what we have, and he wants an educational system with improved outcomes. Vermont has lost upwards of 30,000 students since the mid 1990s and current trends show that we will continue to lose another 1,000 students a year for the next decade. Yet, as a state, we’re spending more now than we did then.
From his 30,000-foot vantage point, he sees a system that needs to be reconfigured to match our demographics.
He’s right. Ms. Holcombe’s successor needs to be someone who can pick up from where she left off, and continue forward. Lower costs and improved outcomes are the twin goals, and they are not mutually exclusive.
The governor’s letter says any qualified candidate must have experience “managing complex issues” and then, in parenthesis says [“not necessarily in education.”] That ambivalence has some within the educational community upset. Filling the education secretary’s position without someone knowledgeable about educational policy seems counterintuitive.
We’ve been through this discussion dozens of times. It’s not essential that Ms. Holcombe’s successor have the doctorate from Harvard that Ms. Holcombe has. There are countless examples of people who have been exemplary in state government positions who have had no specific experience in the area they were managing.
But it helps. And in education, it helps a lot. Someone without that experience would need to be so exceptional that the person’s talents would override the lack of experience.
Are they out there?
Maybe. But any credible candidate would ask how much of a leash they had, and whether the governor would give him or her the backing necessary to complete the job. They would also want to know they had the support of the state board of education. They would need to know, going in, that it is the most thankless job in state government. They will take the heat for the tough decisions, with the governor taking the kudos for any accrued benefits.
Or, the process can go another way. The governor can appoint his own “interim” secretary, and then continue to rebuff the board’s recommendations for as long as he would like. He would then have his person in place, with more control over the directions pursued. If the sole objective is to get the state’s educational system “right-sized” and to do so quickly, this may be his choice.
If he chooses the second option then operations shift to the fifth floor, which could be problematic for morale at the Agency of Education. The process becomes more political, and more brutish. The “interim” choice would need to be especially adroit to thread the needle between what the governor’s office wants and what the state’s educational system needs. This is particularly concerning in an election year.
The better option would be for the board to find its own candidate, and to find one that board members can argue best fits the governor’s needs. In other words, it won’t work to find a policy wonk with no experience managing something as large and as important as the state’s educational system.
It is important to do it with dispatch. Ms. Holcombe set a credible path for her successor to follow, but if too much time is allowed to pass before a successor is named then ways of the past can settle in and battles would need to be refought.
That needs to be avoided. Act 46 needs to be taken to its conclusion. The remainder of Vermont’s school districts need to be consolidated. That’s the message the state board of education needs to be sending, and it should make its case convincingly.
Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of The Essex Reporter.