Editorial, Legislative Report

Washington-style Politics Not for Our Schools

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CAMBRIDGE “No one is the winner in this” was the comment from Dick Sears, the longtime senator from Bennington this week as the Senate took up the confirmation of Zoie Saunders for Vermont Secretary of Education.

Many of us felt the same as Ann Cummings from Washington County when she expressed her feelings on the floor of the Senate during the confirmation debate that this “didn’t feel good” and that this “felt like national politics” here in Vermont.

Sears is the longtime chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Cummings is the longtime chair of the Senate finance committee. Both have been in the legislature for contentious debates. They both served, years ago now, during debates on civil unions and same-sex marriage. Both are Democrats and one voted for the Saunders confirmation, and one voted against the confirmation.

In a body of 30 people, it’s rare that outcomes are surprises, and this confirmation vote was no different. Before the vote we all knew there weren’t the votes to confirm the nominee. I knew, as many did, that there weren’t 10 votes. That is extremely rare because almost every governor’s appointment gets approved.

This is the first appointment of a secretary or commissioner that hasn’t been approved since Gov. Phil Scott’s election in 2016.

We also knew, as this came to a vote, that the governor had the power to appoint Saunders as an interim secretary, which he did immediately following the Senate’s vote.

With the Legislature about ready to adjourn this week that will mean that Saunders will be the interim secretary until next January when the governor, if reelected, can appoint her again and start the same process all over again.

It was also very clear that the educational community wasn’t in favor of the nomination. With lots and lots of emails coming from educators from all over the state raising the same concerns about her as the nominee and with virtually every educational organization openly opposing her nomination, it was clear where the educational community stood.

Also, with more than one-third of all school districts still without budgets and with looming property tax increases, there is lots of uncertainty in our public schools. With many people calling for change, it’s unsettling for school administrators and for all in education. Here in Lamoille County, we have budgets going to third votes in both the Lamoille North and Lamoille South supervisory unions, and it’s unsettling.

The process for nominations for a secretary of education starts with the Board of Education. The board puts up three names for the governor to choose from, and we all knew the governor was fully in support of Saunders’ appointment. In the Senate, the education committee voted 3 to 2 to confirm her as education secretary.

I respect the process and the governor’s prerogative to appoint a secretary. I also respect the public education system. We have great schools in the county, with great elementary schools in Lamoille North and great schools in Morrisville and Elmore.

I do question whether a secretarial appointment without support in our schools will be as effective as a secretary of education should be. We’re in a time of change with enrollment dropping and with Vermont’s aging demographic ― estimates are that one in four Vermonters will be over 65 by 2030.

We can’t have a state education funding formula that doesn’t reflect the fact that schools like Morrisville and Elmore spend 16 percent less than the state average. That’s not fair and change is needed.

I consciously wasn’t in my seat for the vote on Saunders last week. It was the first time since I was elected to the Senate in 2011 that I chose to not vote on something. If I could have abstained while sitting in my seat I would have, but the process is if you’re there you must vote yes or no.

Confrontation isn’t what we need right now. What is needed is for us to work together. Compromise seems to be frowned upon in American politics these days but when people struggle to come to agreement, we generally have better outcomes.

Vermont’s a small place where we can still work on problems face-to-face.

Strident positioning on issues that require broad support hasn’t worked well in Washington. Let’s not follow the country as we try to struggle with important issues like how we fund and govern public schools.

Richard Westman, a Republican from Cambridge, represents all the towns in Lamoille County, except for Stowe, in the Vermont Senate.

Sen. Richard Westman

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