Former RNeSU leader joins education board

BRANDON — Bill Mathis can add another title to his extensive resume: Vermont State Board of Education (VSBE) member.
The former Rutland Northeast Superintendent was appointed by Gov. Peter Shumlin last week to complete four years of a six-year vacated by John Hall.
Mathis, 67, of Goshen retired from his post as superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in June 2009 after 27 years on the job. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center, based at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
The VSBE administers public education in the state. Local municipalities and their respective school districts operate individual public schools but the VSBE audits performance of public schools. The VSBE also makes recommendations to state leaders concerning education spending and policies.
Mathis is eminently qualified for his new post. He was a National Superintendent of the Year finalist, Vermont Superintendent of the Year and president of the Vermont Superintendents’ Association. He has published or presented over 200 national research papers, policy briefs, newspaper columns and opinion pieces on accountability, school quality, financial equity and adequacy, assessment, school vouchers, cost-effectiveness, history, and Constitutional issues. He frequently speaks before professional, policy, legislative and lay groups across the country on the purpose of public education, equality, and federalism.
Mathis has been a sharp critic of the federal No Child Left Behind Law (NCLB) and has written extensively about the legislation and it’s ripple effects to local schools, particularly in rural states like Vermont. RNeSU joined a federal lawsuit challenging NCLB in 2007.
Mathis was also at the forefront of change to Vermont’s education finance system during the late 1990s. Act 60, the education funding law, emerged from the adjudication of a lawsuit featuring then-Whiting Elementary School student Amanda Brigham as the primary plaintiff.
Mathis was also deputy assistant commissioner of education in New Jersey prior to signing on with the RNeSU in 1982.
Reached at his office in Brandon on Friday, Mathis acknowledged that he is joining the board with a personal agenda around assessment and school funding in Vermont, but he vowed to ease into the job.
“I’m the new kid on the block and there’s going to be a learning curve,” he said. “But they’re a pretty good bunch and I think we’re going to have an effective working group in short order.”
Along with Mathis, Shumlin appointed Sean-Marie Oller of Bennington to a six-year term and reappointed Stephan Morse of Newfane to a six-year term after he completed a previously vacated term.
Robert Kelley of Brandon is also a voting member of the VSBE and an Otter Valley Union High School student.
Mathis’ appointment will make for interesting debate on the board, as the outspoken veteran educator has not always agreed with VSBE decisions. Last summer, he came out against the board’s move to join the Common Core national standards effort, which would introduce a new curriculum and set of assessments statewide by 2013 in place of the New England Common Assessment (NECAP).
“The previous investments in curriculum and in the NECAP tests would be junked (along with our ability to track progress over time),” Mathis stated in an August 2010 opinion piece. “In short, the state board adopted an astronomical unfunded mandate on the hope that a grant they don’t have will offset part of the cost but the state and the locals will have to pay for it.”
Conversely, Mathis said he has never been on the side of some Vermonters who over the last year have called for the dissolution of the Vermont State Board of Education altogether. Critics claim that the board was an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy
“I was never of that group,” Mathis said. “ In fact, I’ve argued quite the opposite.”
Mathis did say that although he believes the VSBE plays an important role in regulating education in the state, he would like to see it return to a less-politicized one.
“The board was set up as a quasi-judicial board independent of politics,” he said. “I’m not so sure that the change to being more political is good.”
Overall, Mathis agrees that his expertise and experience will serve him well on the VSBE.
“There are people that wanted someone who knew education policy,” he said. “Most of the members on the board are business people and politicians.”
Mathis said he hopes to refocus the board onto such topics as test scores.
“We’re forgetting that the purpose of education is turning out good citizens and good people, and you don’t measure those things with test scores,” he said.
While Mathis acknowledges that he already has a full plate, he said he will readily make time for the VSBE.
“It really is what matters,” he said. “It’s one thing to study the issues, it’s another to do something about them.”

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