BRATTLEBORO — The 2020 campaign season in Vermont is about to begin heating up but, so far, only one major party candidate has expressed willingness to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Phil Scott.
Rebecca Holcombe, 52, of Norwich, is running for the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination. A former schoolteacher and principal, she served four years as Vermont's secretary of education.
This is the first run for public office for Holcombe, who launched her campaign in July. In 2014, Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed her to lead the Agency of Education, and she stayed on through the first year of the Scott administration.
She resigned in March 2018, citing policy disagreements with Scott, particularly on school choice and education vouchers.
Scott has not yet announced whether he will seek a third term as governor, and he has said that he will not make an announcement until the 2020 legislative session wraps up in May.
In a recent interview with The Commons, Holcombe talked about her candidacy and the issues she will be emphasizing in her campaign - making health care more affordable, strengthening public education, and addressing the effects of climate change.
Education: Beyond Act 46
Holcombe admits that Act 46, the controversial education reform law that seeks to consolidate single-town school districts into regional entities, has been a tough sell in rural communities.
But she believes that Act 46 is just one part of a bigger discussion - how to deal with the problem of rising educational costs, shrinking school enrollments, and increased responsibilities for public schools.
“The school boards, especially in this district [Windham Southeast], worked really hard to contain their budgets,” Holcombe said. “However, I think there has been a disconnect between what's happening on the local level and what's happening on the state level.”
She says school districts around the state are facing many challenges “that they cannot handle alone. They need the state's help.” Those challenges include ever-rising health care costs and absorbing the cost of expanding public education to the pre-kindergarten level.
Holcombe says she recognizes that public schools in Vermont are being asked to do much more than merely educate students.
“There are kids completely dependent on public schools for two or three meals a day, for services related to exposure to childhood trauma, for a variety of different needs,” she said. “I'm not comfortable targeting the institutions that have increasingly become the safety net, not just for kids, but for families around the state.”
Rather than addressing school spending, Holcombe believes that the way to reduce costs on mental health services in the schools is “to strengthen communities so we can strengthen kids.”
To do that, she said Vermont needs “a strong state leader who is going to lean into some of the problems we have supporting our communities, who is going to figure out an economic-development strategy that addresses some of the unique challenges of our rural communities so they have a vibrant future.”
Holcombe said that schools can't save communities on their own, “but if we can strengthen our communities, we can save our schools. The fiscal challenges we face are real, but they are not going to go away - and they are not going to get better unless we try something different.”
Health care: Controlling costs is key
Holcombe believes that the surest way for Vermonters to see lower property taxes is to do something about the rapidly rising cost of health care.
She says that rising health insurance premiums are the biggest single reason for increases in school budgets, and close behind is increased spending on child mental health services.
Holcombe said she was surprised that the Legislature did not pursue additional health care reforms this year. But she thinks that education funding and health care reform are inextricably linked.
“Health care spending is crowding everything else out,” she said, giving as example the increasing reliance on the state education fund to pay for delivering mental health services for students.
“People are really concerned,” she said, “and they want the state to have their back. We know we need the federal government's help [with health care reform], but what do we do in the meantime?”
Climate change: No dawdling
With the long-term effects of climate change becoming more apparent with each passing year, Holcombe said she is encouraged that more Vermonters are demanding immediate solutions.
As is the case with health care and education reform, Holcombe believes that the solution has to come from within Vermont, starting with a commitment to invest in homegrown renewable energy in Vermont, rather than out-of-state fossil fuels.
Doing so, she says, will not just help respond to the climate crisis and protect the state's environment, but it will also help with creating a post-fossil-fuel economy that benefits all Vermonters.
While there is growing support for getting all the state's electricity from renewable sources by 2030, she said she believes the Scott administration is missing an opportunity to lead on this issue.
As a result, Vermont may miss out on opportunities in the green-energy and green-construction sectors and the high-wage, high-opportunity jobs they can create.
“This is what happens when you don't have any strategic planning for rural economic development,” Holcombe said. “There is no vision and no planning. No decision is perfect, but ambivalence is worse.”