When Rebecca Holcombe left Vermont's Agency of Education this month after four years as its leader, she gave just one week's notice — and zero explanation. Holcombe's boss, Gov. Phil Scott, announced her departure by press release and later insisted that hers was "a personal decision," unprompted by disagreements with his administration.
But according to State Board of Education chair Krista Huling, a policy dispute was precisely what prompted the secretary of education to part ways with Scott.
"There were differences in opinion about major issues," said Huling, who spoke with Holcombe before and after the secretary's resignation. "That's where the breakdown happened."
Holcombe has kept quiet since her April 1 departure, creating an air of mystery in education and political circles. "It is time to move on," she wrote in a March 27 letter to colleagues, declining to elaborate. "I have said what I have to say," she told Seven Days in a text message the next day. Since then, Holcombe has ignored repeated requests for an interview.
According to Huling, the precipitating event took place shortly after Town Meeting Day.
For months, Scott had been urging school boards to increase their budgets by no more than 2.5 percent in order to avoid a tax hike of up to 9 cents per $100 of assessed property. Boards went beyond that, presenting budgets that averaged just 1.5 percent in growth.
But soon after voters approved those spending plans in early March, Scott's commissioner of finance, Adam Greshin, told reporters that the cost savings were insufficient.
"We have still some work to do," he told Vermont Public Radio, noting that property taxes were still projected to rise by 5 cents. Scott has said he'll oppose any tax increase this year — and avoiding a property tax hike would require as much as $40 million in additional cuts. "Our belief is, it's time for state policymakers to take over," Greshin said.
According to Huling and two others who have spoken with Holcombe about the matter, the secretary considered the demand an affront to school boards that had worked hard to keep spending down and to the voters who'd authorized that spending. The two sources requested anonymity for fear of professional repercussions.
"She felt it was undemocratic to try to go and change budgets when the voters had already approved them," Huling said. "That was the disagreement that I think led to her resignation."
In Holcombe's view, according to Huling, the anticipated tax increase was largely a product of the Scott administration's own making.
In 2017, the governor and the legislature agreed to use a $26 million surplus and $6 million in education fund reserves to hold down the property tax rate. Holcombe and her staff privately objected but were unable to sway Scott. While the decision saved taxpayers money in fiscal year 2018, it has forced lawmakers to make up for the use of $32 million in one-time funds.
The disagreement between secretary and governor "really stemmed from last year when the governor used one-time money with the education budget," Huling said.
While Holcombe never publicly questioned Scott's calls for further "cost containment" in March, she did privately voice dissent at least once.
A person outside the Agency of Education who worked closely with Holcombe recalled getting a phone call from her the week after Town Meeting Day: "Rebecca expressed regret that after school boards had worked so hard to bring budgets in so low, representatives of the administration were calling for a $40 million reduction."
That demand, which many lawmakers oppose, has become a flashpoint in Vermont's 2018 legislative session. In recent days, House and Senate leaders have met privately with the governor's staff in the hopes of avoiding a standoff like last year's, when Scott vetoed the budget after lawmakers rejected a last-minute proposal to establish a statewide school employee health insurance contract. The Scott administration has resurrected the concept this year and offered several other cost-cutting ideas, including reducing staff-to-student ratios. Lawmakers say the proposals aren't fully baked and wouldn't save anything approaching $40 million.
Holcombe stayed out of the fray during last year's debate and, in general, assiduously avoided public involvement in any political conflict. That may explain how she managed to keep her job when Scott took office in 2017, even though Scott's Democratic predecessor, Peter Shumlin, had appointed her.
Scott and Holcombe did share certain convictions.
Throughout her tenure, the education secretary made it clear that she supported Scott's goal of reining in school spending, as long as doing so wouldn't diminish the quality of education. She also played a lead role in implementing Act 46, which requires many school districts to merge into larger, more cost-effective units.
"Through her expertise and tenacity on Act 46, Rebecca has had a positive impact on Vermont's schools and education system," Scott said in his statement announcing her departure. "In the context of this law alone, Rebecca has likely met with every superintendent and school board member in the state, and this work remains very important as we move forward."
The reorganization of Vermont's school districts, which is still underway, has been highly contentious in some communities. Though she served as the primary arbiter of this process, Holcombe was revered by many school leaders, who invariably praise her commitment to ensuring that students have equal access to education opportunities. The administration's calls for cost containment post-Town Meeting Day caused particular indignation among this crowd.
"I think it's absolutely ludicrous," said John Castle, superintendent of North Country Supervisory Union. "The governor is out to lunch."
"School boards developed budgets that voters approved, and the General Assembly and administration ought to respect that process," said Nicole Mace, executive director of the Vermont School Boards Association. "The year-by-year gimmicks aren't good policy, and they undermine the hard work of people at the local level."
Holcombe's husband, former journalist James Bandler, has been dropping hints on social media about the reasons for her departure. The day after Scott framed her decision as a "personal" one, Bandler wrote on Facebook that it was, in fact, "a professional decision and not a personal one."
The following week, he tweeted a link to a Morrisville News & Citizen editorial that read, "For Holcombe, who tried to shepherd school districts through merger mania and also find ways to shave their budgets, the timing of Scott's cost-cutting must have felt like a knife in the back. The governor undercut her credibility, and that could well be the reason she's gone now."
Whether Holcombe ever confronted the governor over their disagreement isn't clear. At the March 27 press conference during which Scott addressed her departure, he told reporters, "I believe we had a great working relationship." The governor deflected questions about policy disputes, even when asked directly whether Holcombe had expressed concerns about his calls for cost containment.
Asked again this week whether the secretary raised those objections with the governor, Scott spokesman Ethan Latour demurred. "I wouldn't say that we felt that that played a big role in her decision," he said.
A colleague of Holcombe's at the Agency of Education noted that it had become increasingly clear that "the governor had other ideas and wasn't listening to her," which made it challenging to "maintain her credibility as an education leader committed to what's best for kids.
"She didn't feel like a partner in the decisions that were happening under her authority," the colleague continued. "It was important to her that different audiences saw her as an authentic leader, and carrying the governor's water was interfering with that."
According to Huling, Holcombe's priorities became incompatible with those of the governor. "Her reason for being in education is equity," she said. "I think that's her passion, and if the governor is looking at cost containment, that's not her passion."
There were other areas in which the secretary's emphasis on equity put her at odds with the governor and his staff, according to the Agency of Education employee. Among them: how to regulate private schools that receive public tuition dollars. Scott has consistently shown support for school choice and raised concerns about subjecting private schools to the same special education requirements that apply to public schools.
Holcombe and some of her staff hold a different view, according to her colleague, who said, "The independent schools say they don't want to serve the most vulnerable, and we say that's OK, and we're going to give them taxpayer dollars? That's crazy."
Earlier this year, the education agency presented lawmakers with data showing that spending in "sending" districts — which provide tuition vouchers for students instead of operating their own schools — was much higher than in districts that have their own public schools.
"We're allowed to talk about all the ways the public schools can save money, but not the ways the private schools should," said the agency employee.
Before Holcombe became secretary, she directed Dartmouth College's Teacher Education Program; earlier in her career, she served as a public school principal and middle and high school teacher. Although Scott has offered nothing but praise for Holcombe, he's also made it clear that he's looking for something different in his next secretary.
When filling the position, the Board of Education selects a minimum of three candidates, and the governor must choose from among them. In an April 2 memo to Huling that quickly drew criticism from educators and lawmakers, Scott asked the board to put a high priority on candidates who, among other strengths, "have experience managing complex issues (not necessarily in education)..."
The governor modified his stance after it was pointed out that state law requires the secretary to have expertise in education management.
But some are still wary about whom Scott will choose. Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said, "I worry that we're gonna have a new vision every two years, whereas Rebecca was a steady ship."