Op-ed: What will the Vermont Senate do about Zoie Saunders?

By John Walters
©2024 Vermont Political Observer

Gov. Phil Scott’s administration is acting as if Zoie Saunders’ nomination as education secretary is a fait accompli. On Monday, the Agency of Education issued a press release that trumpeted Saunders’ first day on the job. Nowhere did it mention that her appointment must be approved by the state Senate, which won’t even begin considering the matter until sometime next week.

Zoie Saunders during the March press conference in which Gov. Phil Scott introduced her as his nominee for secretary of education. Click image to view video. Screenshot from ORCA media.

In fact, the press release says that “Saunders will travel around the state in the coming weeks” and “In the months ahead, Secretary Saunders will kick off a formal listen and learn tour.” It’s assumed that there are no barriers to her continued service.

One might conclude that the fix is in, that the Senate will put on a show of performing due diligence before rubber-stamping Saunders despite numerous questions and controversies about her background. Such as, for example, her near-total lack of experience working in public education and her nearly seven years as a senior executive at a for-profit operator of charter schools. (To read Saunders’ resume, click here.)

Lately, the Senate hasn’t shown a lot of backbone when it comes to the governor. The senior chamber has blocked override attempts on Scott’s last two vetoes — the Bottle Bill last June and the ban on flavored tobacco and vapes this year. The Senate Appropriations Committee seems intent on approving the administration’s plan to significantly cut the motel voucher program even if it means unsheltering hundreds of vulnerable Vermonters.

And Sen. Kesha Ram Hinsdale of Shelburne, chair of the Senate Economic Development, Housing and General Affairs Committee, has said that her approach to the housing crisis is the same as the administration’s: a heavy emphasis on regulatory reform.

To me, that bunch doesn’t seem primed to stand against Scott on his pick for education secretary. The impression was strengthened when the Senate Education Committee bowed to the administration’s request to postpone Saunders’ confirmation hearing from this week until next, giving her a week-plus to settle into the job. And then came the Education Agency’s press release touting Saunders’ first day in office.

There is another interpretation, however. Informed sources tell me that Saunders faces significant opposition in the Senate and that her confirmation is in doubt.

Which sheds a different light on the Education Agency’s press release. It could be seen as an expression of confidence. But what if it’s more like whistling past the graveyard? What if the administration is worried about the Senate process and trying to pretend it isn’t a real thing?

This would be of a piece with the Saunders rollout from the very beginning:

  • She was introduced at a hastily convened press conference on a Friday, which is the traditional day for “newsdumps,” the practice of pushing out bad news at a time when media outlets are powering down for the weekend.
  • Her nomination was announced barely more than three weeks before her first day, which is a very short time frame for an executive leaving an important position elsewhere and making a 1,500-mile relocation.
  • The administration snapped back, perhaps too aggressively, at initial skepticism of the pick with overblown accusations of misogyny and anti-Florida prejudice.
  • And then came the administration’s request to postpone a hearing on her nomination, which will give her a faint aura of incumbency in advance of the Senate vote.

Every step seems to betray a measure of insecurity by the administration.

Plus, there’s another piece of evidence that Team Scott isn’t feeling all that great about things.

It comes in the form of a press release from the White River Valley Education Association about Saunders paying a visit to the White River Elementary School — as part of a statewide listening tour —  under carefully controlled conditions. “Members of the press were not allowed to accompany her on her tour, but her photographer was,” the union said, and slammed the administration for using “our place of work as a device in their PR machinations.”

I have also heard that admission to a scheduled round table was limited to students, although initially adults had been invited. Perhaps the change had something to do with the fact that members of the teachers’ union showed up wearing shirts saying “Wildcats For Public Ed.” Wildcats is the school’s mascot.

If the WRVEA tells the truth, then Team Scott is being awfully touchy about Saunders’ introduction to Vermont. Which lends credence to the idea that they are not as confident as they appear.

Take it for what it’s worth. In my view, the next time the Senate stands up to the administration in 2024 will be the first time, so I’ll believe it when I see it. But this alternate narrative makes sense, and should give Saunders skeptics a reason to keep contacting their senators between now and confirmation day.

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