2.28.2014 – Town Meeting, Education Reform, and Another Success Story

The pace is quick at the State House as we approach Town Meeting week. We are all aware that we have two weeks until the crossover deadline on March 14th. Crossover is the date by which all House bills have to be out of their policy committees in order to be taken up by the Senate without a rules suspension or an exemption granted by the leadership of the other body.

We are also very much looking forward to the Town Meeting week break and the festivities of Town Meeting day. On Tuesday, Rep. Matt Trieber and I will be visiting the four towns that have an old-fashioned Town Meeting. Starting in Brookline, we then go to Athens, Grafton, and, hopefully end up in Windham for lunch. Rockingham and Westminster have their meetings on Monday and Saturday, respectively. People know how to contact us and know we are accessible but I greatly value the opportunity to meet folks on their home turf and look forward to hearing their thoughts.

This week, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet with the new Secretary of Education, Rebecca Holcombe, over lunch. In January, she spoke at an Education Summit at UVM and I was excited to hear her vision for the future of education in Vermont. Rebecca is very interested in preparing our children for the twenty-first century world and giving them the best education possible.

After talking with her, what has become clearer for me is that we are, in many ways, very fortunate in the Windham Central Supervisory Union (WCSU). We are already doing many of the things that are being discussed in the education reform conversation. We share teachers and staff amongst Union member schools, for instance our librarian; art, physical education, and music teachers; and nurse, to name a few. Our member schools use model policies that can be tailored to our own needs but are basically the same – we don’t have to reinvent the wheel for every school. Rebecca described examples of supervisory unions with multiple schools that each hire their own distinct staff and that insist on completely different sets of policies. WCSU could be a model for other supervisory unions as they attempt to be more efficient.

Are there changes we could make to be more efficient and cost effective? Yes! For instance, rather than have our superintendent attending multiple school board meetings in person, he could be Skyped in from his office or home and save travel time and mileage.

While there is work being done on education governance reform, it is unclear where this will end up when all is said and done. At this point, what is being proposed in the Education Committee seems to be a very top down approach with the end plan predetermined. When an end plan is predetermined and is subsequently taken out for public engagement, people tend to be reactive rather than creative.

It is unfortunate that many of us react to the question of education reform with suspicion but this is the result, I believe, of the approach taken by previous administrations and Commissioners/ Secretaries of Education. In the past, the tactic was to encourage policies that put the squeeze on small schools whether or not they were doing a great job – they seemed an easy target. Rebecca Holcombe made it clear to me that this was not her goal, especially for elementary schools.

An alternative approach would be to have a more initially inclusive process in which a neutral entity, such as the Vermont Council on Rural Development, builds a listening board that goes out to a wide cross section of the public to hear the ideas that people have. Part of the process might be to have people answer the question “what do we stand for when we think of the future?” What do we want our community to look like in the future? What do we do to achieve financial stability? This is the process that was used to develop the Working Lands Enterprise Initiative, which has been highly successful, in part, because so many people were involved in its creation. This is the kind of process I would support and hope it prevails in Montpelier.

This week, we also heard a report from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) and Coalition focusing on the impact they have had on agriculture and farmers. The VHCB has helped many young farm families purchase a home and/or farm. This is vital as we increase our consumption of local foods and our investment in the working landscape.

One young family with two lovely little girls told their story of growing sweet potatoes in Pawlet at Laughing Child Farm – www.laughingchildfarm.com . The VHCB helped them buy their home which has enabled them to double their sweet potato crop. The business planning help they have received has allowed them to plot a course to a sustainable lifestyle on their farm. As a grandmother, it is always delightful to have young children in the State House. It emphasizes to me the importance of the future of Vermont.