Senate Committee Votes 3-2 to Recommend Saunders as Education Secretary | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Senate Committee Votes 3-2 to Recommend Saunders as Education Secretary


Published April 24, 2024 at 6:41 p.m.

Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Campion - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Campion
The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday voted to recommend Zoie Saunders to the full state Senate as Vermont’s next education secretary.

The vote was 3-2. Committee chair Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington), Sen. Terry Williams (R-Rutland) and Sen. David Weeks (R-Rutland) backed Saunders. Sen. Nader Hashim (D-Windham) and Sen. Martine Gulick (D-Chittenden-Central) voted against the motion.

The discussion and vote took less than five minutes.

Hashim was the only senator who explained the rationale behind his decision. He said the person appointed to the highest job in the state’s education system should have “a deeper understanding of the Vermont system and plans for the future.” He said he found Saunders’ answers to questions during Tuesday's confirmation hearing “lacking.”
The full Senate is expected to vote on Saunders’ confirmation next week; she needs a simple majority to be confirmed. One of the three senators who voted in favor of Saunders will explain the recommendation on the Senate floor.

The committee’s decision comes despite letters from the Vermont Superintendents, Principals' and School Boards associations; the Vermont-NEA; the Vermont Educational Equity Collective; and the Vermont Student Anti-Racism Network expressing concerns about her career as a strategist for a for-profit charter school company and her lack of experience as a teacher, principal or superintendent. Hundreds of constituents have also weighed in with emails and letters; most who wrote to the committee indicated they opposed Saunders’ appointment.

The vote comes at a contentious time for education in the state. Dozens of school budgets have failed this spring — some twice. A bill making its way through the legislature would create a Commission on the Future of Public Education tasked with recommending sweeping changes to Vermont’s education system.
Earlier in the day, the House Education Committee heard allegations about political meddling in a past appointment. Krista Huling, a South Burlington teacher who served on the State Board of Education from 2013 to 2019 and was its chair for her final two years, made the claim to the committee.

Huling led the search that resulted in the appointment of former education secretary Dan French in 2018. Huling said that during that search, the administration of Gov. Phil Scott lobbied the state board to interview candidates with no education experience, even though state statute says that candidates should have both education policy and management experience. Huling said she did not comply with the governor’s entreaties to look for someone who had “CEO experience over education.”
At the end of the search, Huling said, she was summoned to the office of Jason Gibbs, Scott’s chief of staff, and asked to add another candidate to the board’s list of three finalists. That person, Huling said, had not applied for the secretary position. Huling said that, once again, she rebuffed the request.

She charged that the Scott administration, and the Peter Shumlin administration that preceded it, hamstrung the board. Under both governors, Huling said, the board was denied legal counsel and adequate staffing to do its work. Its budget was limited.

“The current governor does not have a public vision for education, and his only strategy has been to level-fund public schools and work to dismantle our public education system from the outside in,” Huling told committee members.

Rep. Casey Toof (R-St. Albans), committee member, pushed back on Huling’s comments.

“I think it’s pretty bold to say that you feel like the governor wants the education system to fail in the state of Vermont,” Toof said. “I have a really good relationship with the administration. I don’t feel like that is the case at all.”

“I do think it’s bold, but it is how I feel,” Huling told Toof. “I’m here just to speak my truth, and it doesn’t have to be yours.”

Several people who watched the hearing said Gibbs, Scott’s chief of staff, came to the meeting room as Huling’s testimony wrapped up and pulled aside committee chair Rep. Peter Conlon (D-Cornwall) for a conversation.

Jason Maulucci, the governor's press secretary, blasted Huling's testimony in an email to Seven Days.

He said it "contains unsubstantiated lies from an individual with a demonstrated political agenda in opposition to the Governor." He linked to a Seven Days article from 2019 about Huling's resignation from the board in response to criticism about her involvement in former education secretary
Rebecca Holcombe's gubernatorial campaign. Holcombe, who is now a state rep, ran in the 2020 Democratic primary. She lost the nomination to David Zuckerman, who in turn lost the general election to Scott, a Republican.

"As the Governor has said time and time again, his vision for Vermont, given the substantial investments we are making, is to build the best public education system in the country, from cradle to career, ensuring all of Vermont’s kids have access to success," Maulucci's statement continued. "The status quo simply isn’t delivering that and change is needed. We believe that vast majority of Vermonters agree."

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