Norwich Resident To Lead Vermont Schools
Rebecca Holcombe speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 in Montpelier, Vt. Gov. Peter Shumlin announced that he has selected Holcombe to be the new Vermont Secretary of the Agency of Education. Holcombe is director of the teacher education program at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.(AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
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 will replace Armando Vilaseca, who announced his intention to leave state government a year ago.
Holcombe, a Norwich resident with an 11-year-old at the Marion Cross School and a 13-year-old at Richmond Middle School, said on Thursday evening that she had learned a great deal from her time working in Upper Valley schools, and is ready to apply those lessons in her new job.
The “big takeaway” from her experience on the planning committee for Rivendell Interstate School District, Holcombe said, was that “improving schools is challenging work, and that it’s bigger than any one individual or any one perspective.”
Holcombe, who has lived out-of-state in recent years, said she was relieved to be back in the Green Mountain State.
“We spent our time away trying to figure out how to move back to Vermont and move back to Vermont schools,” she said last night.
During the news conference on Thursday where she was introduced by Shumlin, 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 Rivendell School District, which in includes Fairlee, West Fairlee and Vershire in Vermont and Orford 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.
Doug Tifft, who now works as a production coordinator at the University Press of New England, worked closely with Holcombe when they were both on the planning committee for the creation of the Rivendell School District. At that time, Holcombe was the principal at Fairlee Elementary School, and Tifft said she provided the vision for the emerging school district.
“She really adapted a lot of leadership roles and was able to explain difficult education ideas to a skeptical public and was very good at that,” said Tifft, who added that the committee was tasked with uniting four towns that had never really worked together. “ ... We had a lot of work cut out for us crossing those boundaries.”
Tifft said Holcombe was “very much a big ideas person” who sometimes generated pushback from skeptical teachers and administrators. He said she had to create a convincing argument for school boards in both states for the interstate district plan, and did a good job bringing people on board.
“The only downside is that she didn’t stick around long enough to work out all the details, and perhaps ... some of the teachers were left doing a lot of the work to figure out what’s next,” said Tifft. “I can’t really blame her for that. She had a job opportunity in Massachusetts at that point and her first child was on the way.”
Tifft said, “in the end, she was great to work with.
“She is a very fast thinker on her feet,” he said. “She certainly has the students’ interests in mind. She’s one of those people with one foot in the clouds and one foot on the ground.”
Holcombe 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 has degrees from Brown University and Harvard and worked as a social studies and science teacher and school principal before her work at Dartmouth.