Shumlin taps new Vt. education chief
By DAVE GRAM
The Associated Press | September 20,2013
Toby Talbot / AP Photo
Rebecca Holcombe speaks at a news conference Thursday in Montpelier. She has been named the new secretary of the Agency of Education.
MONTPELIER — The head of Dartmouth College's teacher training program will be Vermont's next secretary of education, Gov. Peter Shumlin announced Thursday.
Rebecca Holcombe of Norwich will replace Armando Vilaseca, who announced his intention to leave state government a year ago. Holcombe will take over in January.
She is the first new secretary of education to be appointed since legislation in 2012 changed the department's organization. Instead of an independent Department of Education headed by a commissioner reporting to a Board of Education, the department is an agency headed by a secretary reporting to the governor.
Shumlin selected Holcombe from a list of three candidates provided by the board.
As the 2012 legislation was being debated, some had voiced fears that it would be difficult for the board to give up the power to appoint the education chief.
“All of the terrible things that were said might happen have not,” Shumlin said Thursday. “We worked very closely together. We share a vision together. We would not have come up with such a great secretary had we not worked hand in hand.”
Holcombe said no education funding system is perfect, but she called Vermont's complicated system for collecting property taxes and disbursing them to local school districts “the most progressive and probably the most exciting education finance formula in the nation.”
She added that she wants to gain experience in the job before recommending any changes.
Another issue much discussed in recent years is the call from some quarters for consolidation of some Vermont school districts, particularly small ones in rural areas.
Holcombe and Shumlin both said such efforts must have strong local support and must not be imposed from Montpelier.
She was director of academics at the formation of the interstate Rivendell School District, which in includes three towns in Vermont and one in New Hampshire.
“Rivendell worked because we had very, very high levels of public participation, and there was something in it for everybody who was at the table,” Holcombe said. “And the new district was approved by 80 percent of voters.”
Stephan Morse, chairman of the state Board of Education, noted there are financial incentives for districts that wish to consolidate, but agreed that local support is a must.
“It's not going to work if it's a forced consolidation, but we certainly encourage schools to take a serious look at it,” he said.
Holcombe has degrees from Brown University and Harvard and worked as a social studies and science teacher and school principal before her work at Dartmouth.