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Ann Manwaring (D-Wilmington), who announced her retirement from the state Legislature recently, shown speaking at a 2015 Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce gathering.

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Manwaring leaving after decade in House

Says she won’t seek a sixth term so she’ll have more time for personal pursuits. But she wants to stay involved in the debate over the future of Vermont’s school system.

WILMINGTON—In her 10th year in the Statehouse, Rep. Ann Manwaring is calling it a day.

The Wilmington Democrat won’t seek a a new term representing constituents in three Windham County towns, saying she wants more time for personal pursuits. But Manwaring, a House Education Committee member, also is pledging to stay involved in efforts to change Vermont’s school-financing system.

“I’m a big proponent, and always will be, of public education being the best it can be,” Manwaring said. “That will always be my work.”

Manwaring serves the Windham 6 House District, which includes all of Wilmington and Halifax along with part of Whitingham. The retired small-business owner took office in 2007 and has served five consecutive terms in the House.

She spent six years crunching numbers on the House Appropriations Committee. “That really was the highlight for me, and I enjoyed that work a great deal,” Manwaring said. “And that was really how I got my insight into the education system.”

Manwaring’s curiosity about — and dissatisfaction with — Vermont’s education-funding system carried into her current work on the Education Committee. She got involved with that committee just in time for the controversial 2015 passage of Act 46, which pushes for consolidated school districts in an attempt to equalize educational opportunity and rein in spending.

Manwaring said Act 46 has helped spur more conversation about the state’s education system. “I believe that there will be some value coming out of it in the long term,” she said.

But she is clearly ambivalent about the law overall, saying it still relies too much on “economy-of-scale thinking”—the notion that bigger districts are inherently better. Manwaring is concerned that smaller, high-performing schools eventually will be swallowed up in such a system.

“What we want is good outcomes for our kids, outcomes which do happen in schools of many sizes,” she wrote in a letter announcing her decision to not run again. “But it seems to me that our financial structure supporting education acts like Pac-Man.”

Manwaring believes the state must do more to effectively direct resources toward solving pressing problems—for instance, the “achievement gap” that affects disadvantaged students. “That, in my world, is the key thing that we have to figure out how to do,” she said in a March 16 interview. “There is a giant churn of money in the education fund that is actually only tangentially related to the work that money does.”

Manwaring acknowledges, however, that she doesn’t know exactly how to create a more outcome-based education system. She praised “some really good work going on inside the Agency of Education” on that front, but she believes change will take time—“akin to turning a very large ship.”

As of the end of this year, Manwaring is stepping off that ship—at least in her role as a state legislator.

Manwaring said she has no health concerns but noted that books she intends to read have been piling up next to her chair at home. And, at age 75, she admits that “time is catching up.”

But that doesn’t mean Manwaring intends to stay quiet. With a resume that includes service on the Wilmington Selectboard and a number of other community organizations, Manwaring didn’t rule out future community involvement.

And she wants to keep debating the future of Vermont’s schools, albeit from Wilmington rather than from Montpelier. “I will not be able to turn this thinking off in my head,” Manwaring said with a laugh.

That dedication has left a lasting impression on Manwaring’s colleagues.

Rep. Laura Sibilia, I-Dover, is serving her first term in the House. But she said her work with Manwaring stretches back to Sibilia’s stint as executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce.

“Prior to that, for years I used to serve her coffee at Dot’s in Wilmington and discuss/debate the local, state and national issues of the day,” Sibilia said. “She has always been highly responsive to her constituents and even non-constituents in the broader Deerfield Valley. She has been a tireless advocate for education of Vermont’s students and transparency in funding. Ann has been a valuable mentor and treasured friend.”

Rep. Emily Long, D-Newfane, is a longtime local school board member and first-term legislator who serves with Manwaring on the Education Committee. While Long has known Manwaring for years, she said she has gained a new appreciation of the veteran legislator’s knowledge and dedication via the committee’s work.

“Ann is consistently focused on accountability and outcomes,” Long said. “She always wants to know what we are getting for the money we are spending. I have learned a great deal from her and have often looked to her for advice.”

Brandon Batham, chairman of the Windham County Democratic Committee, issued a statement praising Manwaring’s work. “We look forward to having her home year-round and are proud to call her one of our own,” he said.

Batham also said he is looking forward to having Manwaring “followed by an equally hardworking and impressive Democrat.”

It’s not clear how that race will shape up, as major party candidates have until May 26 to file for the Aug. 9 primary. But at least one person—Democrat John Gannon of Wilmington—is publicly expressing interest in running for the Windham 6 seat.

In a campaign announcement issued March 16, Gannon said his resume includes work in Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority.

He and his wife, Crista, now run Happy Dog Farm in Wilmington, where Gannon also serves on the town selectboard, is co-chairman of the downtown organization Wilmington Works, and is a board member of the Wilmington Fund VT.

“While there are many issues and problems facing Vermont and our area that need to be addressed, my campaign will focus on growing our economy, supporting education and making Vermont an affordable place to live,” Gannon wrote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #349 (Wednesday, March 23, 2016). This story appeared on page A4.

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