$5 million grant will streamline education data for state

Brian Townsend, Armando Vilaseca and Peter Shumlin

Left to right, Brian Townsend, IT manager for the Vermont Department of Education, Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca and Gov. Peter Shumlin talk with reporters about a new $5 million education technology grant announced Wednesday. VTD/Andrew Nemethy

Vermont has won a $5 million grant that will allow the state’s education community to share data and better track academic trends in its 277 school districts.

Gov. Peter Shumlin and Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca announced the three-year $4.95 million data collection grant, which was awarded by the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, at a press conference Wednesday.

Calling it a “big deal,” Shumlin said the state will gain “a central, single 21st century data collection system” that is automated and will ease paperwork for teachers. It will also give schools and the state a diagnostic tool to pinpoint where students are excelling or falling behind, and allow it to use that information “in real time” to learn what methods work or provide aid where schools are struggling.

At his weekly press conference, the governor also lambasted the aging Vermont Yankee Nuclear power plant, which had to reduce power because of an electrical issue Tuesday; praised a Vermont Public Service board approval of the merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service; defended state emergency streambed alterations made in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene; and reiterated his support for bringing the new F-35 fighter aircraft to the Vermont Air Guard at Burlington International Airport.

Education Commissioner Vilaseca said the $4.95 million grant will streamline existing processes for Vermont schools and cut their workload on data already being provided to the state. He said a key aspect is that the data will extend to the pre-K level, allowing the state to identify and track the impact of pre-K and kindergarten programs on school learning.

Vermont was rejected for a larger but similar grant two years ago, the governor said. It won this grant in competition with 24 other states.

Brian Townsend, who handles the education department’s information technology systems, said the system essentially will use new software to allow the state to automatically collect existing information staff sometimes now have to input by hand, easing their workload. The grant, which runs out June 30, 2015, will also pay to make technology changes and for training and staffing to upgrade the system.

A new governance committee with school and state education officials will be created to give districts a voice in the programming of the new system, Townsend said.

Shumlin, noting Vermont was one of nine states that had not received a technology grant until today, said it would help Vermont deal “with all the junk they throw at us” in terms of federal requirements to track student progress under No Child Left Behind.

In response to a question, Vilaseca said he likes his job but declined to say if he intended to stay on as the state makes the education department a full-fledged agency with a secretary appointed by the governor. The Legislature approved a governance change last session, removing the commissioner’s appointment as a responsibility of the board of education and upgrading the post to cabinet status.

Vilaseca said the appointment process has not been worked out yet under the new governance structure but did say, “I enjoy what I do.”

In other comments:
• The governor, a longtime critic of Vermont Yankee in Vernon, said the latest electrical issue at the plant that prompted reduced power on the hottest day of the year, reinforces the need to close the aging nuclear facility, which began operating in 1972.

“When you continue to run an aging plant beyond its design life, it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “She’s old, she’s tired, she should have been closed down in 2012,” Shumlin said.
“I find it absolutely astonishing that we sit in this country in the 21st century acting as if we can continue to simply run our aging nuclear power plants, built in the 1960s, forever without challenges, and I don’t want those challenges in Vermont.”

• Shumlin said criticism of the Vermont Public Service Board’s decision to permit the merger of Green Mountain Power and Central Vermont Public Service and not return $21 million directly to CVPS ratepayers is misguided.

He said Vermonters will get “extraordinary savings” of $144 million over 10 years and $500 million over 20 years as a result of the deal, which will provide “huge benefit to Vermont ratepayers” and help create jobs. The deal will also consolidate bureaucracy and put money in ratepayers’ pockets.

“I think the board did a great job in sifting through the complex questions of the deal,” he said.

• The governor said he thought comments by Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Deb Markowitz had been “misinterpreted by the press” on the subject of river work done after Tropical Storm Irene.

Markowitz was quoted last week as saying the Shumlin administration sent the wrong message in the way it allowed stream alterations and river excavations after the storm. Shumlin said clearly some stream and river gravel extraction actions “were not perfect” but said his priority was “getting Vermonters out of harm’s way” after Irene. Noting 13 communities were entirely cut off by washouts and emergency efforts were essential, he said, “We made the right decision, I would make them exactly the same way again.”

• Shumlin said he welcomed “good and honest Vermont-style debate” by Burlington, South Burlington and Winooski on whether Burlington International Airport and the Vermont Air Guard should host the new F-35 fighter. All three communities have expressed reservations about the noise of the new fighter. But he reiterated his support for the aircraft, noting it is faster so the noise would decrease more quickly, and less polluting than the current F-16 aircraft, which should be weighed with noise concerns raised by towns around the airport.

“With a decision like this there are pros and cons almost every time,” Shumlin said.

“All I can say is I am very supportive of bringing in the F-35s to Vermont,” he said.

Andrew Nemethy

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