On April 10, 2024
Opinions

We’re moms, our kids are in public school and we helped select Zoie Saunders as Vermont’s next education secretary

By Kristin Clouser, Monica Hutt, Rebecca Kelley, Julie Moore and Kendal Smith

As members of Governor Scott’s cabinet and senior staff, we were part of the team who interviewed candidates for our next secretary of the Agency of Education. All five of us are also moms of kids currently in, or graduated from, Vermont’s public school system.

Each of us had the chance to interview the three finalists selected by the State Board of Education and provide input to the governor as he made his decision. And we are looking forward to the opportunity to work with incoming Secretary Zoie Saunders. More than that, we are optimistic and excited to see how she can strengthen education in Vermont, benefiting our own children and communities.

At a time when student test scores are declining and our children are still grappling with carry-on impacts of Covid-related learning loss, her experience developing innovative approaches for student achievement, increasing equity in education, creating successful partnerships, and demonstrably improving outcomes is exactly what we want for our own kids. Notably, these achievements extend to both her time working with traditional public schools and public charter schools, despite the latter currently being used to stoke fear and suspicion here in Vermont.

Years of declining enrollment and the affordability crisis facing Vermont schools, laid bare by the significant number of school budgets voted down on Town Meeting Day, means we have a real and present challenge which is putting learning and enrichment opportunities for our kids at risk. As Zoie noted during our interviews, “Parents want to send their kids to schools with the resources to support student success.” It’s imperative we find a way to ensure the sustainability of our education system.

Zoie’s strategic thinking coupled with experience working with K-12 schools across seven other states is an asset for us at this critical juncture for our public education system. Alongside this background, one of the things that impressed us most about Zoie is the clear value she places on listening to others and considering local factors, values, and priorities. We also see her as a doer, taking in all available information to get the most out of existing resources, and to make smart, and sometimes difficult, decisions that put students’ needs first.

Throughout her career, she’s been committed to building stronger communities, primarily for underserved populations, seeing education, health and safety as critical tools. This approach aligns well with the governor’s community revitalization goals for Vermont. Specifically, she’s led projects to secure community support to turn around underperforming schools; expanded workforce development and training opportunities in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods; secured academic support and career counseling for 2,000 low-income students; and mobilized resources for students and families experiencing homelessness. While earning her master of education degree, where she focused on the intersection of education, human service delivery and community development, she also advised education stakeholders on ways to implement President Obama’s Promise Neighborhood initiative to address intergenerational poverty.

This is an important job, and as Zoie said to us herself, “Education is so personal because it is about our kids.” So, all of us expect the incoming secretary to face tough questions. She should. But she should have the opportunity to answer questions before assumptions are made and calls to challenge her appointment are levied. She doesn’t even start in the job until April 15 and yet there has already been a significant rush to judgement – and a few misleading email campaigns – by legislators, their party leaders and their political supporters. We should be setting a better example for our kids, modeling how to keep an open mind and to hear from others before writing them off.

As Governor Scott has said, we believe the people of Vermont will see what we saw, which is a smart, authentic, thoughtful leader who is genuinely excited about helping Vermont kids – our kids, and her own – get the best possible education. We all look forward to seeing her prove just that.

Kristin Clouser, of Jericho, is the secretary of the Agency of Administration.

Monica Hutt is the state’s chief prevention officer and liaison to the Agency of Human Services. She resides in Williston.

Rebecca Kelley is the governor’s communications director and liaison to the Agency of Commerce & Community Development. She resides in East Montpelier.

Julie Moore, of Middlesex, is the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources.

Kendal Smith, of Barre, is the governor’s policy and legislative affairs director and liaison to the Agency of Education.

The authors were part of  interview team, which also included Deputy Secretary of Human Services Todd Daloz, Executive Director of the Office of Racial Equity Xusana Davis, and Chief of Staff Jason Gibbs. Collectively, this group has nine children who currently attend public schools and five who have graduated from public schools in Vermont.

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