New Vt. Chief Takes Personal Approach To Political Job

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David S. Wolk has been guided by a simple maxim as he's moved through jobs as principal, superintendent, and now, state schools chief: Educate all children as if they were your own.

It's a motto that has earned him respect in this New England state throughout his career, and now as its top education official for the past six months.

"When I go into schools, and sit in the classrooms, I think of every child as my own," the 47-year-old commissioner of education said recently. "I approach every decision that affects children as if it is going to affect my own children."

But it was his own family ties that made the veteran administrator hesitate to enter his name in the search for a new Vermont chief last year.

David S. Wolk

Position: Vermont Commissioner of Education Since February.
Age: 47
Education: Education: Certificate of Advanced Study, Harvard University doctoral program in administration,planning, and social policy, 1984; M.Ed., educational administration and planning, University of Vermont, 1976; B.A., political science, Middlebury College, 1974.
Previous experience:Superintendent, Rutland city school district, 1996-2000, and assistant superintendent, 1995-1996; principal, Rutland High School, 1993- 1995; chief of policy, for Gov. Howard Dean, 1992-1993; state senator, 1989- 1993; teacher, Mt. St. Joseph Academy, Rutland, Vt., 1976-1980.
Personal: Married to Diane Wolk, with whom he has a blended family of four children.

On the one hand, he would become a leading candidate to take on the educational challenges of this small, rural state, which has seen significant— and sometimes fiercely debated—changes in its school finance, accountability, and school choice systems in recent years.

But his wife, Diane, would have to resign as the chairwoman of the state school board in order for his application to be considered. And taking the job would mean a two-hour commute to Montpelier, the state capital, from his home here in Rutland, cutting into time spent with his wife and their blended family of four children.

Nevertheless, Ms. Wolk encouraged him to apply, because she believed he had the personality and political savvy to oversee positive change in the system. Although his background is in education, during the past decade Mr. Wolk has served as a state senator, was the chief of policy for Democratic Gov. Howard Dean, and ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in 1992.

"There was nobody I knew in the state of Vermont that had the knowledge and political background to be commissioner," Diane Wolk said. "He's a very good motivator of people."

After supporters around the state echoed his wife's encouragement, Mr. Wolk, who was serving as the superintendent in the 3,000-student Rutland district, decided to enter his name into consideration. Late last year, the state board chose him to replace Marc Hull, a popular commissioner who had recently resigned because of health problems.

Now, Mr. Wolk says he wants to take advantage of Vermont's small size, and use it as a laboratory to try the kinds of new programs he had championed as a school administrator."We need radical change in the way we serve our kids," said Mr. Wolk, who served for almost four years as Rutland's schools chief. "I want to make Vermont the state of education, with the best schools."

His ideas have earned him respect not only in Vermont, but also in Washington, where he was an active member of the American Association of School Administrators and now belongs to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the AASA, said he was always impressed with Mr. Wolk's ingenuity and innovation in matters such as special education.

"He's a hell of an educator, and a real experimenter," Mr. Hunter said.

Challenges on Funding

When Mr. Wolk took office in February, he inherited a full plate, most notably the implementation of a law to overhaul the state's school finance system. Known as Act 60, the 1997 law caused an uproar in the state by replacing property taxes levied at the local level with a single statewide property tax. Residents of wealthier resort towns—where taxes spiked after the measure took effect even as funding for local schools fell—called for the law to be overturned. But both the Wolks were strong supporters of the plan.

In the past year, much of the furor has subsided, and most of the state's 600,000 residents are focused on implementing new accountability plans that were included in Act 60.

Six months into the job, both David and Diane Wolk are still adjusting to their new roles. Ms. Wolk, who was also coordinating student-teaching assignments at a local university as well as serving as state board chairwoman, decided to return to her primary interest, early-childhood education, and became the principal of a K-2 school in Rutland.

In his office in Montpelier, Mr. Wolk has a map of the state, and he's placing pins to designate each of the 35 schools he's visited so far. His goal is to visit a school in each of the states' 61 districts during his tenure.

"My most enjoyable time of the day is when I'm in a school," he said. And he admits that as he's climbed the education ladder, going from teacher to principal to superintendent to commissioner, he's missed the day-to-day interaction with students.

One of his goals is to make sure that while schools are held accountable for student performance, educators also focus on school safety and provide a nurturing social climate for Vermont's 110,000 public school students.

"Part of my job is to put pressure on schools to be more accountable," he said. He added, however: "We could have lots of high test scores, but if we don't have the appropriate climate, we won't have good schools."

Since becoming the state chief, Mr. Wolk has worked to target the schools that have failed to meet the standards set by Act 60. He also took the controversial step of threatening to withhold state aid from one failing school, a step that he doesn't expect to carry out because of recent changes at the school.

Mr. Wolk wants to expand public school choice under a new program piloted in Rutland that allowed students to transfer to schools outside their districts as part of new regional networks. He's also working on a plan to break the state education department into regional offices.

"Even in a state with strong local control, people appreciate the fact that we're advocating for kids," Mr. Wolk said.

Rick Dalton, the president of the Foundation for Excellence in Schools, a philanthropic group based in Cornwall, Vt., said Mr. Wolk has garnered a great reputation within the state.

"He's highly respected," Mr. Dalton said. "I have always felt, from our first conversation 20 years ago, that he is someone who not only has great ideas and intelligence, but has a great approach with people."

Given his background in politics, Mr. Wolk's fans say that they expect him to run for higher office at some point—a seat in Congress or the governorship are often mentioned. But he says he's not contemplating a political bid, preferring instead to focus all his efforts on improving education.

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 24

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as New Vt. Chief Takes Personal Approach To Political Job
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