Vermont-N.H. educator Rebecca Holcombe named Secretary of Education

New Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe joins Gov. Peter Shumlin at a news conference Thursday in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

New Vermont Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe joins Gov. Peter Shumlin at a news conference Thursday in Montpelier. Photo by Viola Gad/VTDigger

Gov. Peter Shumlin has picked Vermont and New Hampshire educator Rebecca Holcombe to head up the Agency of Education, starting in January.

At a news conference Thursday in Montpelier, Shumlin described why he chose Holcombe over the other two candidates for education secretary all three of whom were presented to him by the State Board of Education.

“When I asked her about her philosophy, No. 1 it matched mine, but No. 2, it always came back to the kids.”

Holcombe directs the Dartmouth Teacher Education Program in Hanover, N.H. Before that, she was a principal at Fairlee School in Vermont and a social studies and science teacher at the Frances C. Richmond School in Hanover.

Holcombe said she and the governor have similar views such as extending the school year, early child education and personalized learning plans for students — a new requirement the Legislature passed last session.

Holcombe is the state’s second secretary — the governor’s office took over management of the Agency of Education last year and selected then-commissioner Armando Vilaseca to serve an interim term as secretary until January 2014.

The State Board of Education ceded some control, but kept its policy-making role. Shumlin hailed the organizational shakeup as a success Thursday, and the board’s chair, Stephan Morse, echoed that assessment.

“There was some trepidation about that transformation, I’ve gotta tell you that from my perspective of governor, our partnership with the State Board of Education has been nothing short of stellar,” Shumlin said, adding that, “All of the terrible things that were said might happen have not.”

The fifth floor of the Pavilion Building in Montpelier was teeming with education leaders; Vilaseca, was not present, however. He had a conflicting meeting, according to Shumlin’s spokesperson Sue Allen.

The governor said he was impressed that Holcombe, as director of academics, had presided over the consolidation of four towns into the Rivendell Interstate School District, which serves Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire, Vt., and Orford, N.H.

“I say anyone who can bring together four communities to consolidate and create one school with people coming out happy is going to make a great secretary,” Shumlin said.

But don’t expect the next secretary to be a cheerleader for consolidation. Neither Shumlin nor Holcombe showed an appetite for proffering consolidation, citing local control. Both, in fact, questioned the premise that consolidation reduces costs.

“I generally do not buy into the logic that small schools necessarily cost more to run than big schools,” Shumlin said.

“I would second that, and the research literature supports that as well,” Holcombe added. “It’s not clear that consolidation does increase costs.” But, she said, she wants to look at “quality per cost” and “collaboration to reduce costs.”

The Legislature passed two laws several years ago to encourage consolidation, and cut down on costs, among school districts. During the media event, Morse announced that the board had, early this week, approved what he described as a voluntary but controversial merger for the Windham Central Supervisory District. If Windham voters approve the “regional education district,” it will be only the second supervisory union to do so, and Morse said it was “a bit of a mystery” to him that other districts hadn’t followed suit.

Holcombe, who did a case study on the state’s education financing system while at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said she has faith in the current framework.

“I have to say I think Vermont has the most progressive and probably the most exciting education finance formula in the nation,” she said.

Clarification: Windham voters have not yet approved the “regional education district.”

Alicia Freese

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  • I look forward to a strong, consistent relationship with the Governor, Secretary and Vermont State Board of Education – and hopefully the legislature too.

    Districts across the state are working hard to bring communications/technology up to date, implement the new curriculum (Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards), prepare for the new standardized testing regime, and (most importantly in my opinion) the personalized learning plans for each student.

    We are doing so under budget pressures and the overriding need to keep providing and increase the learning opportunities for the students.

    This can all be done – as a matter of fact it IS being done. But we need consistency at the state level.

  • Howard Ires

    Mr. Morse

    Although the the State Board has approved the merger of the Windham Central Supervisory Union into a RED board, the people have yet to approve it and getting this approval is a dim prospect.

    Please let me enlighten you to the mystery of why more towns don’t want to dissolve their local school boards to form Regional Boards – the reason is that it’s a terrible idea – for the schools, for the towns, and most of all for the kids.

    The plan for Windham Central means losing 24 out of the current 35 school board members who keep a close watch on the performance of our town schools. It involves little monetary savings, and no apparent advantages for anyone except the administrators who wouldn’t have to deal with so many school boards.

    In a classic example of State error, the articles that were approved by the State for election were invalidated by the Attorney General after the vote was warned, and at the moment there is no election scheduled to approve merger until a legally valid article is warned.

    I hope that Mr. Shumlin and Ms. Holcombe are more respectful of our local schools and local school boards than the previous administration. Small schools run by local school boards are the best thing for the children of Vermont, and the high quality of our educational system proves it.

  • Penelope Chevalier

    Good teachers are priceless, but the teacher unions have created a situation where lousy teachers thrive at the expense of our kids. Nothing significant can be done unless we are able to easily remove lousy teachers! Many teachers who have been doing it for more than ten years are burned out, but they stay in their positions for the golden pension and benefits that the rest of us wish we could have. I don’t think protecting all teachers is more important than protecting the future of our kids, why do we allow the teacher unions to bully us into giving up our children?

  • “The State Board of Education ceded some control, but kept its policy-making role.”

    Don’t know how much value that policy making role is – Ed Secretary Vilaseca has stated the State Board’s policies are meaningless to him … see

  • Kathy Nelson

    Shumlin said, “When I asked her about her philosophy, No. 1, it matched mine…”. Interesting statement coming from our severely ethically challenged governor. It’s a shame that Holcombe has been appointed by this governor as no one trusts Shumlin’s motives or judgement.
    Slowly but surely Shumlin is working to remove any vestige of local control by the people of VT. Too many people think there is no way to stop the erosion of our rights but that’s not true. Let’s take back our rights to be persons again.

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