Candidates for new secretary of education position come from divergent backgrounds

Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. VTD/Josh Larkin
Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca. VTD/Josh Larkin

Armando Vilaseca, the commissioner of the Department of Education, will compete with two longtime Vermont superintendents for the new Secretary of Education position.

Gov. Peter Shumlin is expected to select a secretary from among the three candidates, who have been vetted by the Vermont State Board of Education, sometime before January.

The other two applicants — Daniel French and Brent Kay are also from Vermont but come from divergent backgrounds — French is a former Korean linguist, originally from Connecticut, and Kay worked in corporate finance in Saskatchewan before becoming an educator.

Both have experience streamlining operations in rural supervisory unions.

French is in his sixth year as superintendent of the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union. He graduated from the University of Connecticut and, after four years as a sergeant and Korean linguist in the U.S. Army, he gravitated to northern New Hampshire where he taught social studies for five years. French served as the principal at a preK-12 school in Canaan, VT, for seven years before he became superintendent of the Essex North Supervisory Union.

French says his forte is using technology to achieve “personalized learning” and “organizational efficiency.” French says BRSU has “automated all aspects of organization,” creating cloud-based systems for curriculums, professional development, accounting, and other school functions. One of French’s crowning achievements is an approach dubbed “personalizing learning pursuits,” which relies on technology to design learning activities regardless of grade level. French was also a pioneer in bringing Google’s “Apps for Education” program, a free cloud-based group of applications geared towards learning, to BRSU, and he has developed several social media tools to connect Vermont educators around the state. Fifteen years of working in rural school has convinced him of the need to “connect teachers beyond their district boundaries,” French says.

According to his LinkedIn profile, French has also founded a “strategic consulting firm supporting educational and non-profit organizations seeking to restructure in order to leverage changes in technology.” French regularly blogs about education and technology at

French said he applied for the secretary position because he thinks Vermont “needs to have leadership that understands technology.” His vision is to “create a world class system education in Vermont designed around meeting the personal learning needs of each student.”

Brent Kay also entered education through an untraditional access point. Kay was working in corporate finance but became interested in education after getting involved with his company’s co-operative education program, which provided work experience to students through short-term employment arrangements. Kay has undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry, a masters degree in finance, and a doctorate in administration. After jumping ship from corporate finance, Kay taught science at the K-12 level and organizational behavior and leadership courses at undergraduate and graduate levels. He spent four years as a superintendent of a school district in Saskatchewan province in Canada, overseeing a region so expansive that some schools were as far apart as 6,000 miles.

While carrying out a fiscal equity study in Saskatchewan, Kay met several Vermont educators, two of whom ultimately traveled to his house in Canada to recruit him to the position he currently occupies at Orange Southwest Supervisory Union.

Kay says he has realized cost savings for the Orange Southwest Supervisory Union over the last nine years. Kay says Orange-Southwest hasn’t seen a budget increase in that period and has achieved $29 million in savings over the course of 11 years. Kay explains that the six supervisory boards in his union have consolidated certain functions— maintenance systems, food services, technology leases— which has freed up financial resources for new technology and curriculum development.

Kay says these fiscal victories have enabled OSSU to operate a number of new education programs. The district has started a one-year full language immersion program with Middlebury College and the Bridging Project, which relies on a partnership with UVM and Vermont Reads Institute to improve literacy rates in grades 3-6, Kay reiterated, “We are able to do this because our nuts and bolts are in order.”

Kay said he thinks math and science are overemphasized at the national level and that Vermont needs to focus more on developing students’ critical and creative skills. “I believe in the arts,” Kay said, adding that OSSU has been able to maintain its arts programs at a time budget constraints have forced other schools to pare down these programs.

Kay said is very content in his current position and the decision to apply was “not an easy decision by any stretch of the imagination,” but he decided to throw his hat in the ring after about 30 people approached him. His vision is “to work with our local schools and help them create as many rigorous pathways for them to pursue learning.”

Armando Vilaseca, who has been the commissioner of the department since 2009, was appointed by the Vermont State Board of Education under the Douglas administration.

The commissioner has 30 years in Vermont schools as a teacher and administrator. He was superintendent of the Colchester School District and Franklin West Supervisory Union. He is a graduate of the University of Vermont and he holds a masters in education from Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Stephan Morse, chair of the Board of Education and a member of the committee said the Vermont State Board of Education search committee didn’t have much success seeking out-of-state candidates.

“Even though we posted the position on several national educational sites, the number and, frankly, the quality of the applicants we got from out of state were not terrific,” Morse said.

Partway through the process, the committee “went back and reinvigorated the search” but only about half of the 25 to 30 applications ending it coming from out-of-state, according to Morse. He speculated that two possible deterrents to applicants outside Vermont were that the position was newly created and that it was publicly known that the current commissioner was in the running.

The job description did not state a salary range. The current commissioner makes about $117,000 a year, including benefits.

Correction: Daniel French was a principal in Canaan, VT not NH as was originally reported.

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Alicia Freese

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  • kevin lawrence

    Good coverage of the two new candidates for the appointment. Listening to my co-workers in education grumble about backward thinking Vilaseca carries to work each day may actually come to an end.

  • Tom Anderson

    I have said for a long time that Brent Kay should run the state education system. Smart, savvy, an excellent communicator, Brent has a track record worth a look. I may not agree with him on everything, (for instance, math and science cannot be “overemphasized” given our lack of competitiveness in the new global economy and our slide further into a stagnant, consumer based economy), but he is the type of common sense leader we need going forward.

    Brent would be a major improvement from where we have been in our state education system.

  • Craig Kneeland

    Governor Shumlin needs to ignore this limited list of candidates and choose someone outside the VT K-12 environment. Higher education, as well as our Community College needs to be represented in any progressive reform.

    • victor ialeggio

      As noted above, at least one of the finalists lectured, albeit briefly, at a (Canadian) university. Although that, as well as his K-12 experience, was of limited and part-time duration while he was serving as a district supervisor.

      Title 15, Chapter 5, Section 212 of the Vermont code sets out the duties of the Commissioner of Education. Higher education is mentioned in only 1 of 17 sub-sections and only in passing.

      H. 440, which establishes the cabinet post of Secretary of the Agency of Education, makes no mention whatever of higher education .

  • Bill Griffin

    A candidate for Education Secretary supervised “a school district in Saskatchewan province in Canada, overseeing a region so expansive that some schools were as far apart as 6,000 miles.”

    Not likely. Maybe 600 kilometers?