Politics

Rebecca Holcombe: A former education secretary’s bid to unseat her old boss

Holcombe left the Scott administration in 2018, over disagreements on education policy. Now she’s trying to unseat the governor who she used to work for. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On March 27, 2018, Gov. Phil Scott announced that Vermont’s Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, had resigned

Holcombe had served as secretary of education for four years— first under Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and then under Republican Gov. Phil Scott—and her departure came abruptly, with little notice or explanation. 

At a press conference the day the news broke, Scott said Holcombe’s decision was a “personal” one. 

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Holcombe declined interviews, but in a letter to teachers and administrators said she was confident the governor would appoint a successor “who shares his vision.”

Neither party publicly pointed fingers, but behind the scenes, Holcombe and the governor shared major disagreements on education policy. The breaking point came after local schools voted on their budgets in 2018. 

That March, school districts had already approved spending plans and met the Scott administration’s financial targets. But despite schools’ efforts to tighten their budgets, the governor asked state officials to cut spending on K-12 education even further—by an additional $40 million.  

Holcombe opposed the plan, and viewed the administration’s proposal to cut spending as an effort to change budgets that had been agreed to by local voters. 

After leaving the position, she also spoke out against the administration’s methods of achieving savings—such as a proposal to cut school employees, through attrition, to raise student-to-staff ratios over time. 

Realizing that she could no longer serve in the administration, she told the governor she planned on resigning.

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“The governor has the right to appoint someone who is going to be consistent with him and put together policy that is the way he wants,” Holcombe said in an interview. “I wasn’t an elected official—I served at his pleasure.”

In an email to VTDigger in March, Scott’s chief of staff, Jason Gibbs, said while Holcombe led the Agency of Education “inequity between districts continued to accelerate, even as spending and taxes increased significantly, and the student population continued to decrease.”

“The former Secretary was given a great deal of latitude and a significant amount of time to propose policies to change the trajectory of any of these trends,” Gibbs wrote.

Responding to the email, Holcombe said that Gibbs “takes no responsibility for what’s not working, blames others and claims all credit for any success—even when he is benefiting from the work of others.” 

Now, Holcombe is hoping to unseat her former boss. 

Since last July, Holcombe has been campaigning, and is running on a platform that includes expanding Vermont’s renewable energy sector, lowering health care costs and increasing affordable housing. She has proposed sweeping state ethics reforms including multi-year bans on lawmakers and gubernatorial appointees from lobbying in the Statehouse, and more transparent public records policies. And like just about every Democrat running for office this year, she has criticized Scott for standing in the way of a $15 minimum wage and a mandatory paid family leave program.  

In the August primary, Holcombe is facing off against Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, and Bennington attorney Patrick Winburn, and Ralph Corbo, an activist from East Wallingford. 

Even in the age of Covid-19, Holcombe has kept up a vigorous campaign schedule, attending online campaign events and socially-distanced in-person functions around the state.  

Democratic candidate for governor Rebecca Holcombe speaks during a press conference in Burlington on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On the morning of July 15, Holcombe called a press conference on the Burlington waterfront to discuss her ideas for building out the state’s green energy economy. 

Standing in front of Lake Champlain, Holcombe, 53, wore a pink mask and stood at a podium, maintaining social distance with the two reporters who attended the event. She is athletic—an avid runner, Nordic skier, and a former college rugby player. 

She is also a policy wonk, and speaks at a fast clip as she runs through proposals, facts and figures. 

“Every year we spend about $3 billion dollars on energy and most of it is from out of state—only about one percent of the energy we use is local solar,” Holcombe said during her press conference. 

“And here’s the challenge: when we send our dollars out of state, you lose the value that they could create to building a strong and vibrant local Vermont economy.”

Holcombe grew up all over the world in several developing countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Fiji. Her parents worked for the United Nations, focusing on economic development. Many of the countries where she lived faced “grotesque economic inequality” and lacked public systems of education and healthcare. 

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She said this gave her a “very, very deep and profound appreciation for basic public institutions that provide stability and equity of opportunity.”

“Certainly that influenced my decision to go into public education, I mean having lived in countries where only 30% of people could read,” Holcombe said. “You see what it means when as a nation, and as a state, you commit to the principle that everybody should have access to education.”

A few years after graduating from Brown University, Holcombe worked as a teacher in New Hampshire. She first taught social studies at Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan, and then social studies and science at the Frances C. Richmond School, a middle school in Hanover where she became a curriculum coordinator. 

By the time she reached her late 20s, she was hired as principal of the Fairlee School in Vermont, where she remained for three years. 

Later, Holcombe went on to complete teaching fellowships at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she taught students seeking to become principals. In 2011 she became the director of the Dartmouth Teacher Education Program.

About three years later, she was tapped as Vermont’s education secretary. 

Holcombe is married to James Bandler, a journalist who won a Pulitzer prize in 2006 while working at the Wall Street Journal and currently works for ProPublica, an investigative nonprofit news site. The two live in Norwich and have two children, both now in college.  

In 2016, along with two other families, Holcombe and Bandler purchased the Highland Lodge, an inn in Greensboro. She says that if elected governor, she will sell her share of the business. Holcombe and Bandler earned just over $400,000 in 2019, according to her financial disclosure

Leading the agency

The biggest shift that occurred under Holcombe’s leadership at the Agency of Education was the implementation of Act 46, Vermont’s school merger law—one of the largest and most contentious education reforms in the state’s history—which was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Shumlin in 2015.  

As education secretary, Holcombe helped usher the law through the Legislature, and oversaw the mergers of around 150 school districts over the course of her tenure.  

“She and her staff spent enormous energy through that whole long process of assisting school districts and making decisions and complying with the law,” said Stephan Morse, a Republican who chaired the State Board of Education when Act 46 was enacted. 

“She was instrumental in getting that implemented,” said Morse, a former lawmaker and Speaker of the House.

Rebecca Holcombe
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe speaks to lawmakers in October 2015. File photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

David Sharpe, a Democrat who served as the chair of the House Education Committee when Act 46 passed, said Holcombe helped address concerns from lawmakers and others who believed the proposal would “destroy small schools.”

Proponents of Act 46 acknowledged that some consolidated districts could ultimately choose to close down small schools that had seen declining enrollment. But they said that in other cases, merging districts would allow rural schools to share resources, keep them open, and stabilize local tax rates. 

“She was very good at suggesting people to testify and bringing in studies and understanding different points of view that really helped us understand that moving the governance to a larger unit, more consolidated unit, was not going to close schools,” Sharpe said. 

“What was going to close schools is loss of students,” he added.

Krista Huling, who served as chair of the board of education after Morse, and left the position last year to work on Holcombe’s campaign for governor, said the former education secretary worked with districts that already had a “vision” for joining together. 

Huling said Holcombe pressed local schools to keep equity for students in mind. “She would always push the idea of ‘What are you going to do to make sure your students have equal opportunity,’and helping these people move together and come into a governance that they chose,” Huling said.  

Holcombe resigned from the Scott administration weeks before the Agency of Education was supposed to unveil its recommendations for how the state should move forward with forced mergers: how to address the school districts that had not moved to consolidate voluntarily. 

When Holcombe was first appointed to lead the Agency of Education, it had recently lost more than a fourth of its staff in the wake of the Great Recession due to budget cuts. 

Amy Fowler, who served as a deputy secretary in the Agency, said when Holcombe first arrived, employees were “bruised” from recent rounds of layoffs. “There was a massive reduction of state-funded programmatic staff, and so every time we had a conversation, people would ask us if they were getting laid off,” she said. 

Fowler said Holcombe helped reinstill enthusiasm at the agency, skillfully leveraged federal dollars to help it make the most of its funding, and promoted a “vision of equity” for the state’s schools.  

Fowler, who was fired a month after Scott appointed Vermont Education Secretary Dan French as Holcombe’s successor, criticized the governor’s administration for failing to address bureaucratic tasks at the agency. She said, for example, that it once took “70 or 80 requests” from agency staff before the governor picked appointees to fill open positions on a state board that credentials teachers. 

Unlike Holcombe, she said the governor’s office “seemed wholly uninterested with some of the bureaucracy that is just a natural part of governing.”

“She has both vision, and the attention to the work that needs to be done,” Fowler said of Holcombe. “Which probably makes her less than a glitzy candidate,” she added with a laugh. 

Surveys of employees at the agency found that morale climbed while Holcombe led the agency. In the 2013 fiscal year, before Holcombe took office, only 13% of employees reported they felt morale at the agency was good. That number steadily climbed over the years, and by 2017, it reached 42%. But it was still below 49%, the average for state departments and agencies.

The state didn’t publish survey results in 2018. But a survey conducted in February 2019, nearly a year after Holcombe left, indicated morale had fallen once again—back down to about 14%, the lowest of any agency or department. 

Holcombe said the agency was still understaffed when she left. “The workloads were so intense,” she said. “I mean we had people who came to us from other agencies and then left because they said ‘We had no idea how hard you had to work here.’”  

Rebecca Holcombe
Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe speaks at a State Board of Education meeting in September 2017. File photo by Bob LoCicero/VTDigger

While at the agency, Holcombe also tried to implement new regulations for the state’s private schools— known in Vermont as independent schools. Holcombe went to the State Board with proposed rules to address “inequities” between public and independent schools, according to Morse, the former chair. 

Under those proposed rules, private schools that accept public tuition dollars would have had to offer open enrollment and special education services. They would also have to be accredited by an approved body and provide more financial documentation to the state. 

Holcombe said the proposed rules came as more parents had opted to send their children to independent schools — meaning the state has directed more of its taxpayer dollars away from its public K-12 system and toward independent schools, which, according to Holcombe, means public schools are seeing fewer resources. 

“And so the question is, when that happens, do we have schools that any kid can go to, because every kid has a right to education,” Holcombe said. “And are these schools that we can guarantee will provide a quality and credible education?” she added of independent schools.  

Vermont’s independent schools rejected the proposal, believing that the new rules would force small private schools to close because they couldn’t afford to comply with the same requirements that public schools do. 
In 2016, Morse, the then-chair of the state’s board of education, accused Shumlin of blocking the proposed regulations and siding with the independent school lobby. The rules were also opposed by the lieutenant governor at the time, Scott.

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Holcombe and Scott clash 

In late 2017, Scott got an early start on the next year’s school budget debate, issuing a letter to education leaders asking districts to keep spending in line with 2.5% economic inflation. Schools listened to his call. In 2018, districts approved budgets that, across the board, only led to a 1.5% increase in spending from the previous year.

On March 8, 2018, weeks before Holcombe decided to leave the agency,  Scott said that wasn’t enough. Property taxes, which fund K-12 education in Vermont, were still projected to go up, violating the governor’s pledge to not raise taxes. He said state policymakers still needed to find $40 million in savings through cost containment measures. 

Holcombe strongly opposed this approach and said Scott’s proposal frayed Montpelier’s relationship with local schools. 

“What it did is jeopardize the relationship that we worked to build with them that we were going to work with them in good faith on their final plans,” Holcombe said. “And what people started to tell me was ‘How can we trust you?’”

She also opposed how the governor eventually asked lawmakers to use a budget surplus to buy down the property tax rate. 

In her view, this was an irresponsible budgeting practice. While it would decrease the tax burden Vermont residents would feel in one year, the rate would go up the next year, assuming school districts spent the same amount. 

The question of whether to use the surplus to keep down property taxes was the subject of a budget battle between the Scott administration and the Democratically controlled Legislature in the Spring of 2018. 

But even before tensions simmered over school budgets, Holcombe and the Scott administration disagreed about other aspects of education policy, particularly concerning financial reforms. 

About a month after Holcombe’s departure, in an effort to decrease education spending, the Scott administration unveiled a proposal to set student-to-staff ratios for all Vermont schools, and fine schools that exceed them. 

At the time, the statewide average student-to-staff ratio was 4 to 1, the lowest in the nation. The Scott administration wanted to set a threshold ratio of 5.15 to 1 for every school in Vermont.

Under the plan, nearly 1,000 school staff statewide would have been eliminated over a five-year period, mostly by not replacing retirees, leading to about $45 million in savings. The proposal got a hostile reception from Holcombe and Democrats in the statehouse.  

Holcombe argues that many of the state’s rural schools need more staff because unlike others  they can’t easily contract certain necessary offerings— like behavioral and mental health services—out to other businesses. 

“It’s not that they’re making bad decisions because they have lower ratios,” Holcombe said.  “It’s that they live in such isolated places they have to make different decisions to get the same service.”

According to Gibbs, Scott’s chief of staff, disagreements between Scott and Holcombe “became increasing points of friction” while she served in the administration. 

Gibbs said eventually, administration officials learned Holcombe wasn’t supportive of Scott’s proposals for tax relief, “affordable and accessible childcare” and “proposals to expand early learning opportunities.” He also said that she was also “generally opposed” to school choice, and the state’s independent schools.  

“She knew full well that the governor wants to see significant improvements in our public education system from cradle to career, and that he believes we ought to be looking for opportunities to alleviate rising taxes and expand in the programmatic areas we later discovered she did not support,” he wrote. 

Holcombe said she “took Scott at his word that his priorities were affordability, protecting the vulnerable, and creating opportunity.” She added, “Rather than listen to my advice and concerns, Gibbs put politics ahead of progress for our students and communities.”

She also countered that statewide school spending increased at an even higher rate after she left. According to the Joint Fiscal Office, spending in Fiscal Year 2020 went up by 4.3%, and in the current fiscal year it is projected to do the same. In fiscal year 2019, the last year for which Holcombe helped school districts prepare budgets, spending only went up by 2%.

In the statement, Holcombe added that as governor she would “take on the big drivers of higher cost” in the state’s education fund, including health care expenses. 

“I will work with stakeholders across sectors to share assets and bring down costs, so that we can end the harmful cycle of taxes vs. education and put ourselves on a sustainable path towards good schools in every community.” 

In 2017, Scott tried, and failed, to implement a statewide teacher healthcare benefit to reduce education spending, clashing with the Legislature over the proposal. In 2018, lawmakers adopted the plan, which was also supported by the Vermont-NEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Executive experience 

In her bid to win the Democratic nomination, Holcombe’s main opponent is Zuckerman, a Progressive/Democrat and the incumbent lieutenant governor. An organic farmer from Hinesburg who previously served in the Legislature, Zuckerman is well-known throughout the state, and has been in Vermont politics for more than 20 years. 

Matthew Dickinson, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said that the “biggest difference” between Zuckerman and Holcombe is their approach to raising revenue. 

Zuckerman wants to raise the marginal tax on high wage earners to fund initiatives to fight climate change, and replace dollars the state has lost due to the Covid-19 crisis. 

Holcombe avoids talking about new taxes, and instead stresses the importance of making government more efficient. 

“Her whole thing is about freeing up dollars to spend money more wisely,” Dickinson said. 

She has pointed to federal climate change dollars promised by Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden as a promising source of money for building out the state’s green economy. 

During a debate last week, she discussed a plan to establish partnerships between child care facilities and schools “to bring down the costs of child care at their overhead by over 30%” during the pandemic.  

Democratic candidate for governor Rebecca Holcombe in Burlington on Wednesday, July 15, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Holcombe’s main line of attack against Zuckerman has been his opposition to a bill in 2015 that removed the “philosophical exemption” that allowed parents to avoid vaccines for their children. (Vaccinations are required to attend public schools). She has blasted Zuckerman over the issue in political debates, press releases and in a television advertisement she released last week.  

In 2015, Zuckerman said the science of whether vaccinations are safe is “disputed” and offered an amendment to the vaccine bill that would remove the philosophical exemption, but only when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found there was “a reliable DNA swab test” to check for genetic predisposition to vaccine allergies.  

But while he voted against the bill at first, he eventually voted in favor. And he has said repeatedly on the campaign trail that he supports vaccinations. Last week, he said that as governor, he would work to make the Covid-19 vaccine mandatory for Vermonters when it’s released.  

Dickinson said that he doesn’t think that Holcombe’s strategy will “go anywhere.” He noted that the attack keeps playing out in the same way: she brings up Zuckerman’s record, and he points to statements he has made since 2015 showing that he supports vaccinations.    

“I just think she’s made her point, he’s made his counterpoint,” Dickinson said. “It is not going to shift this race.”

Holcombe says she stands out among the Democratic candidates seeking the governor’s office this year because she is the only one who has managed a state agency. 

“I’ve spent my life working with budgets, so I know that even though I’d love to have an island in Hawaii and like I’d love to be able to get a car, you don’t have enough money to do that,” she said. “And so you have to make choices.”

Sharpe, the former House committee chair, said he’s supporting Holcombe, in part, because of her organizational experience. “The last several governors, including the current one, have come out of the legislature,” Sharpe said. “For me, having a person in the governor’s office who knows how to run an organization is really, really important.”

Huling, the state board of education chair, said she was willing to give up that position to help elect Holcombe, because she thinks the former education secretary is the best option “if we want to save public education.” 

But she also stressed that Holcombe’s expertise is not limited to education. Huling noted that in her former role overseeing the state’s schools, she also had to understand nutrition, health care and environmental policy.

“I don’t think you can really pigeonhole her as someone just involved in education,” Huling said.  

“Because if you’re truly looking at equity in the holistic lives of students, you’re looking into so many other issues.” 

Lola Duffort contributed reporting.

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Xander Landen

About Xander

Xander Landen is VTDigger's political reporter. He previously worked at the Keene Sentinel covering crime, courts and local government. Xander got his start in public radio, writing and producing stories for NPR affiliates including WBUR in Boston and WNYC in New York. While at WNYC, he contributed to an award-winning investigation of how police departments shield misconduct records from the public. He is a graduate of Tufts University and his work has also appeared in PBS NewsHour and The Christian Science Monitor.

Email: [email protected]

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