Julia M. Scott
On April 1, Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe stepped down after announcing her resignation in the weeks prior.
For many, this brought up concerns over the future of the Vermont State Legislature’s Act 46, a 2015 bill restructuring Vermont’s schools to a more “cohesive governance and delivery system” for the state’s education system.
Since 2015, many school districts, including the Maple Run School District of Franklin County, have merged under unified supervisory unions to meet the needs of Act 46.
Maple Run was one of the earlier districts to merge, under an early section of the act. This merger was designed to allow schools in the district to more easily share resources, information, and even teachers, while reducing administrative costs.
Maple Run is just one of many Act 46 success stories. The towns of Bethel and Royalton, both of which had small high schools, merged to form the White River Valley Unified School District, effectively doubling programing opportunities by allowing students to join extracurriculars at either school.
Students who could previously only take one sport, or who didn’t have a school band now had the opportunity to participate in more varied programs.
The point of Act 46 was not specifically to merge, but rather to help Vermont schools become more efficient. This could take the form of merging districts, but was never limited only to merging.
“What Act 46 asked every single system to do was to take a really good look at itself, how it was operating, what its costs were, what it’s population decline had been, if any, and to just do a really thorough analysis and figure out were they best positioned to provide good education to their kids not just this year, not just next year, not just five years, but 20 years out into the future,” Holcombe said.
Through February and March, up to her resignation, Holcombe held meetings with Vermont school boards who did not want to merge districts. The object of these meetings was to figure out how these schools and school boards should proceed under Act 46.
“I think it was always understood that some districts, either because they were already fully at scale or highly efficient or because the way they were structured to provide education was so different from their neighbors they couldn’t be merged without a vote of the electorate… there were always going to be some districts that weren’t going to merge but needed to be evaluated in terms of where they sit, whether they were in the right supervisory union, whether there were opportunities for them to maybe stay as stand-alone districts but maybe partner more effectively with other districts supervisory unions,” Holcombe said.
In light of Holcombe’s resignation, Deputy Secretary of Education Heather Bouchey has become the acting interim secretary.
“It has been a smooth transition from deputy into acting secretary. The Agency of Education has a knowledgeable staff that is able to continue the hard work we are doing every day to make Vermont schools great. I feel honored to get to work with our staff and the field more closely in this role during this time of change,” Bouchey said.
Despite Holcombe’s resignation, on June 1 the Agency of Education released the draft for the next phase of the Act 46 plan as previously scheduled.
“This proposal was written by me and a team of staff at the Agency of Education. The Legislature frequently requires the “secretary” of an agency to take an action. A secretary could not individually perform all functions assigned to her/him. Instead, although a secretary and the Governor are ultimately responsible for the work of the Agency, a secretary necessarily delegates legislatively-required work to agency staff,” Bouchey said.
This is far from the final step in the process for Act 46. This plan must be reviewed by the Board of Education before it can be put into effect. The Board has the power to authorise the plan as is or revise the plan. A Board approved version of the plan must be released by Nov. 30 of this year.
“That plan, that rough draft, will go to the State Board of Education which will then review that plan section by section and there’ll be an opportunity for each of the districts affected by that plan to come in and provide additional testimony… So the final plan the State Board is putting together will probably look a little bit different,” Holcombe said.
Due to the nature of the secretarial choice, the information regarding the selection of a new secretary is kept secret. The Board creates a list of three candidates to be sent to the governor, who can then approve anyone of them or request a new list. There is no date by which a permanent secretary must be appointed.