Politics Gums Up Search for Vermont Schools Chief

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The growing role of politics has led the Vermont state school board to suspend its search for a new commissioner of education. And the position may become even more political before it is filled.

Before it goes any further, the board will wait to learn the fate of a controversial bill that recently won approval in the Senate. The measure would shift the primary responsibility for selecting and reviewing the commissioner from the board to Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat.

"We thought that for whoever came up [as a candidate], it would be much better to know what the lay of the land was," said Sally Sugarman, the chairwoman of the state board.

The bill, now awaiting action in the House, is seen by its proponents as a means for moving state education policy closer to voters. But many critics, including board members, charge that the bill would open up the state's top school job to greater political pressure and would dissuade the best-qualified candidates from applying.

But both sides agreed that it is best to resolve the issue before a commissioner is chosen.

"I'm glad they've stopped," said Sen. Jeb Spaulding, the Democratic chairman of the chamber's education committee and a supporter of the bill. "The best time to change the process is when no one is in the office."

Too Insulated?

The commissioner's position has been vacant since September, when Richard P. Mills left the post to take the helm of the New York state education department. Although the interim commissioner, Douglas Walker, has won praise around the state for his work, he has indicated that he does not want the job permanently.

Before halting its search on Jan. 17, the board had named three finalists. That group did not include a local candidate favored by the governor. Gov. Dean said he was disappointed that only one Vermonter made the list.

The board should compile a longer list of candidates who were Vermonters, who had recent classroom experience, and who could be conversant in the recent changes in Vermont education policy, said Stephanie Carter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Dean.

The governor's requests were representative of a larger point of debate on the bill: how much say any governor should have in selecting the state schools chief. The governor already appoints the board.

Sen. Spaulding, in defending the bill, said that handing more authority for the commissioner's office over to a political official could revitalize efforts at education reform, as well as prevent the schools chief from mandating reforms unpopular with the voting public. "I think that being part of the public political process is healthy," he said. "The insulation of the political process has led to a lot of inertia in the educational system."

The bill would require the governor to choose the commissioner from a list of three to five names submitted by the state board.

Need for 'Autonomy'

But opponents of the bill argue that the commissioner needs to be independent of politics. Richard J. McCormack, a Democratic member of the Senate education committee who voted against the bill, said he saw plenty of reasons not to tie the chief's post to a single politician. "I'm not convinced that the reason we have problems is that commissioner is too independent," he said. "I just don't want the curriculum to be vulnerable to political pressures."

And John Nelson, the executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association, said his group had been pleased with the current status of communication between localities, the state board, and the commissioner.

"We're not sure that the same communication could be maintained between localities and the governor's office," he said.

Ms. Sugarman, the board chairwoman, said that in the link between the state and local school boards, "credibility and continuity" were two of the most important issues.

"The potential for there being a slowdown of [education] activities every two years as the governor is revving up for a campaign is concerning people," she said, adding that she hoped to speak to the House education committee on the issue. The Vermont governor serves a two-year term.

That House, controlled by Democrats, had taken no action on the measure last week. The Senate, led by Republicans, approved its bill on an 18-9 vote on Jan. 12.

Vol. 15, Issue 19

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