Holcombe sets sights on governor’s office
MIDDLEBURY — Just two years ago, Rebecca Holcombe was working for Gov. Phil Scott as Vermont’s Secretary of Education.
She’s now campaigning to succeed him as the state’s chief executive, and is doing so on a platform of decreasing health care costs and creating an action plan for climate change.
Holcombe, a 52-year-old Norwich Democrat, announced her bid for governor this past summer. She stopped by the Addison Independent on Monday to share her vision for the state at this early stage of her campaign.
She said the experience of traveling around the state and chatting with voters has been “fascinating.” Two issues in particular have risen to the top: Climate change and the rising costs of health insurance.
“Health care represents about 20 percent of our state product right now,” she said. “There’s no way you can negotiate yourself out of a double-digit increase in health care costs each year. I’ve spoken with business owners who aren’t able to give their employees the plans they used to have and are struggling to deal with the costs as they go up.
“People are really concerned, and they want somebody who will have Vermonters’ back on health care and work to bring those costs down,” she added.
Holcombe said she was stunned the Legislature didn’t pursue additional health care reforms this past session. She pointed out that health care costs are contributing to the education funding conundrum.
“The education fund is increasingly underwriting mental health services through designated agencies,” Holcombe said. “So there’s been a cost-shift into the education fund. The problem is the state’s mental health system is under-supported. So we can treat kids at schools, but if we send them back into families that are still struggling and have no support, we haven’t solved the problem. Because the family needs to be healthy so the family can support the kid, or (the treatment) is just going to get undone. So we need to figure out, as a state, how we’re going to address the significant mental health issues… If we have healthier families, we are going to have fewer children coming into schools with significant trauma.”
And Vermont, according to Holcombe, already spends “substantially more” per capita on social services than other states.
“We should be transparent and say that some of what we call ‘education’ — and pay with our property taxes, which is a more regressive way of paying for services — is actually social services that are paid out of social service budgets in other states.”
Along with rising costs, the health care industry has a shortage of Registered Nurses, Holcombe noted. She said she’d support a program through which the state would reimburse nursing students in return for a pledge to work a set number of years in Vermont. Such an arrangement, Holcombe believes, would also reduce labor expenses at Vermont hospitals that are now having to fill roster spots with traveling nurses who command premium pay.
“We need more Vermont nurses,” Holcombe said. “Instead of paying people to move here, why don’t we pay people to get an RN, with the agreement that they work in a Vermont hospital afterwards?”
Holcombe is pleased to hear during her travels that Vermonters are thinking long-term — particularly when it comes to climate change. She said the state should take steps to replace fossil fuel consumption with locally produced renewable energy, and turn the global warming problem into an economic opportunity: Creating more jobs in the green energy sector.
“People are really worried about climate and trying to figure out the relationship between climate and some kind of sustainable economic development solution that preserves a future for Vermont as we know it,” Holcombe said. “There’s a real concern we aren’t being proactive to plan for what people already believe is a climate-altered future.”
Climate change is having an increasing impact on several Vermont industries, according to Holcombe.
“If you’re a farmer, you’re seeing it in a change in your season. If you’re a ski resort owner, you’re obviously worried about it,” she said. “People know it’s here and they want to know what our plan is, and they don’t think we have one. So they’re asking for some accountability on that.”
The ultimate plan, she said, should include “figuring out how to invest in Vermont instead of relying on out-of-state fossil fuels,” and “figuring out how to increase our dependence on some of the electricity we’re generating locally — building that local resilience.”
Because of her past experience as education secretary, Holcombe’s campaign pronouncements on public schools will come under particular scrutiny. And there will be no shortage of education-related topics that candidates will be asked to field. Perhaps the biggest will be school consolidation, a step that Addison Northwest School District voters will consider on Nov. 7 and that Addison Central School District residents are likely to face within a year or two.
The debate surrounding school closings comes around four years after the passage of Act 46, a new state law that provided communities with incentives to consolidate education governance as a means of achieving more operational and financial efficiencies. But with declining enrollment and surging costs, several Vermont school districts are seriously considering shuttering some of their schools and transferring those students to other schools with the capacity to take them.
Some residents in the ANWSU communities of Addison and Ferrisburgh have organized to oppose the proposed closing of their schools. A group of Ripton residents has started to rally behind that community’s school.
Supporters to closing small community schools point to diminishing student-teacher ratios and the prospect of huge education tax increases to keep the buildings open. Opponents are saying that closing the local school would rob young families of a quality, local education for their children, as well as eradicate an important community focus.
Holcombe is encouraging communities to have spirited conversations about the value of their local schools — in terms of both education quality and affordability.
She said she can see both sides of the argument.
“At the Agency of Education, we used to say, ‘You can’t have a 28-course buffet and pay $3 for it.’ So I think there’s this tension between how much breadth and depth we want, and what we can actually afford.”
While in Addison County on Monday, Holcombe attended a school consolidation informational meeting in Vergennes. She listened intently to the discussion.
“A senior citizen stuck her hand in her pocket and put her change on the table and said, ‘This is all I’ve got; I can’t pay more,’” Holcombe recalled. “There’s this tension of how to meet her need to stay in her home, and also make sure we’re providing high quality opportunities to learn for all kids.”
Communities, Holcombe believes, would be best served framing their long-range planning around the premise of, “How do we strengthen our community so that we save our schools?” rather than “Let’s try to use the school to save the community.”
And that broader conversation, according to Holcombe, should include planning for more local affordable housing, broadband infrastructure and wastewater treatment systems. These are the kinds of amenities that will encourage settlement of both new residents and businesses that will fuel local economies, she reasoned.
“You have to look at your own particulars to make the right decision,” she said. “The genius and the curse of our education system is that we provide tremendous financial support to communities. And if we didn’t, frankly all these schools would be closed already. But we do support them, because there is something in us that believes we need these communities to have our schools. But at the same time… we also have this very fragmented governance system that puts a tremendous amount of responsibility for communities to have these conversations and make decisions they think are best. So we get tremendous variation.”
Vermont communities are proceeding at different rates of speed when it comes to exploring the long-range future of their schools, Holcombe noted. While the ANWSD and ACSD are currently exploring dramatic changes, other districts are still cutting costs and looking at different ways of capitalizing on their buildings.
She cited as an example the Mill River Unified Union School District, which she said has dramatically reduced its budget and is looking to place child care services into the excess room within its elementary buildings.
“What they’re looking at is how can they make the buildings work more hours,” Holcombe said. “I think we’re starting to see some of that entrepreneurialism. I think the more people are entrepreneurial about putting resources together, the better off we are.”
Holcombe acknowledged being a little surprised with the current state of the school closure debate, adding that the language of Act 46 expressly stated that the intent of the law was not to close schools.
“What surprised me is the way the attention has focused on the elementary schools, because the really serious challenges about affordability are at the high school level,” she said. “What we see is that when a high school starts to approach around 100 kids, it begins to really struggle, because it can’t offer the breadth and depth of opportunities that kids want. So we just assumed that districts would make decisions to partner on high schools.”
She noted Bethel and Royalton approved a school merger in 2017 that saw all middle school students got to Bethel and all high school kids go to Royalton. Both communities OK’s the transition by substantial margins.
“Was it hard? Yes. But if you ask the kids, they’re pretty psyched to have (athletic) teams to choose from and they have a band now,” Holcombe said. “That kind of coordination at the high school level is what we thought would play out.”
The plight of dairy farmers is also of concern to Holcombe. Dairy farmers continue to labor in a market that generates a lot of milk for little money to the producers. She blamed the national commodity market for stagnant milk prices. Until and unless there’s a national solution, Holcombe believes the state should help those farmers who want to use their land for growing food.
“I think that’s the transition we need to help people figure out how to make, is how do you move from dairy to food production?” Holcombe said. “If we did that, it would help the water problem as well. It doesn’t have to be agriculture versus water, it should be agriculture and water.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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