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Gov. Phil Scott's pick for new education secretary comes from Florida

A woman wearing a blue blazer stands at a podium and speaks into microphones
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Zoie Saunders, a former charter school executive from Florida, will be Vermont’s next secretary of education, Gov. Phil Scott announced at a press conference at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 22, 2024.

Zoie Saunders, a former charter school executive from Florida, is Gov. Phil Scott’s pick to be Vermont’s next secretary of education. The Republican governor unveiled the newest member of his cabinet at a Statehouse press conference Friday.

She will come to Vermont from Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest public school system in the country, where she currently serves as chief strategy and innovation officer. She has been in that role for just three months, according to her LinkedIn profile. Before that, she spent nearly five years as the chief education officer for the city of Fort Lauderdale, and over six years as an executive at Charter Schools USA.

“She's a problem solver, leader and innovator who's been laser focused on improving outcomes for kids. That's where our focus needs to be,” Scott said.

Saunders will replace Interim Education Secretary Heather Bouchey, who has been serving in her role for nearly a year. Formerly the agency’s deputy secretary, Bouchey took over on an acting basis when Dan French, the previous secretary, stepped down nearly a year ago.

The new secretary's start date is April 15. She will assume her role at a high-stakes juncture in Vermont's pre-K-12 education system. Thanks in part to historic cash infusion from the federal government, a long-running debate about rising costs and dwindling enrollments in the state's schools was largely put on pause during the pandemic years. But that federal cash is now gone, and with property taxes at one point estimated to climb an average of 20% next year to pay for schools, voters rejected nearly a third of school budgets this Town Meeting Day.

More from Vermont Public: Vermont's education system is at 'a tipping point'

Schools, meanwhile, face other acute challenges too, including crumbling facilities, crippling workforce shortages and growing demand for mental health and social service supports on campus.

No important reforms are expected this year, but lawmakers have made clear they believe they have a mandate for change. Committees have begun having wide-ranging conversations about how Vermont funds, governs, and operates its schools, in hopes of laying the groundwork for a major overhaul in the next legislative biennium.

“It’s no secret our education system is at a critical stage. We have big, big challenges, but also believe we have many opportunities. And I know Zoie will be able to help us navigate both,” Scott said.

In brief remarks at Friday’s press conference, Saunders said she was “energized and motivated by the governor's bold vision to make the state of Vermont a national model.” And she said it was her “honor” to take a job leading schools “in a state with such a strong tradition and history of prioritizing education and the needs of children.”

Vermont is one of the top spenders on pre-K-12 education in the country. And that’s a good thing, Saunders said.

“It shows the investment that you all place on education,” she said. “In Florida, it's one of the lowest per pupil reimbursement rates for students. So that does present different challenges."

The secretary will be paid about $168,000 a year, according to the job posting for the position, and oversee about 150 employees at the Agency of Education.

While the education secretary is a member of the governor’s cabinet, the job is unlike most other top-level positions in the executive branch. The secretary is broadly responsible for ensuring that Vermont’s school-aged children have access to an equitable and high-quality education, but their actual power is highly constrained by the state’s tradition of local control. Vermont’s $2.2 billion education fund may represent roughly a quarter of the state budget, but most decisions about how and where that money is spent are left to local school boards.

Saunders said she plans to go on a “listening and learning” tour during her first three months on the job to understand what Vermonters see as strengths and challenges in their schools.

In Broward County, Saunders was a key player in a district-led effort to close under-enrolled schools. Asked what role she believed the state should play in deciding whether to close schools amid declining enrollment, Saunders replied that “community context really matters.”

“These are conversations that really need to take place in coordination with all the stakeholders across the state and within local towns to really understand what are the challenges that may be driving the declining enrollment,” she said.

Her appointment must be confirmed by the Senate, although the chamber rarely objects to gubernatorial appointees. Democratic Sen. Brian Campion, who chairs the Senate Education committee, met briefly with Saunders on Friday and said she had struck him as “smart” and “excited to get started.” He was particularly impressed, he added, with her experience expanding career and technical education.

Charter schools have been criticized for siphoning students and funding away from public schools. And Saunders’ years working at Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter school company with over 90 schools across the southeastern U.S., raised certain eyebrows at the Statehouse. But most who expressed reservations also emphasized they wanted to give the new secretary the benefit of the doubt.

“Her background is definitely probably foreign to those of us working in education in Vermont,” said Rep. Peter Conlon, who chairs the House Committee on Education. “She comes from a charter school background and a large city background, and things are very different here. And sort of marrying those two experiences is going to be interesting.”

While her tenure at the charter school company “could be seen by many as a signal to the direction the governor may want to go,” Conlon also said he did not want to rush to judgment.

“I think that she has great capacity to listen and learn and bring people together in a way that we definitely need,” he added.

Vermont-NEA president Don Tinney said in a statement that while Saunders’ background in charter schools gave the union “pause,” he looked forward to “working together to promote, protect and strengthen public education in Vermont.”

“Vermont public school students and educators need a strong advocate at the Agency of Education to ensure that programs, services, and resources remain in place to meet the needs of our children and youth,” he continued.

The Vermont Democratic Party was less diplomatic. In a statement, VDP chair David Glidden said he had “grave concerns” about Saunders' background working for a charter school company in Florida, "a state that leads the country in gutting their public schools to enrich private businesses."

The Agency of Education lost roughly a fourth of its staff in the wake of the Great Recession, and its loss of capacity has long worried local school officials, who rely on the state for technical assistance and data that is key to the local budget-development process. And in recent years, they have grown increasingly frustrated — and vocal — about an agency they say is failing to perform basic tasks.

With the cost of education dominating debate at the Statehouse, lawmakers have also seized on the length of time it has taken to replace French to drive home their argument that Scott has been absent from a difficult discussion.

After French stepped down, Scott waited until late July to ask the State Board of Education to initiate their search. The state board ultimately received 19 applicants for the job, and forwarded their finalists to Scott’s office in mid-November. Scott said Friday that the summer’s flooding delayed the hiring process, and that he also did not want to rush a selection for such an important position.

“The good news is we’re here today. And we’ve got a great candidate that came forth,” he said.

This story was updated on Friday, March 22, 2024 at 6:20 p.m.

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Lola is Vermont Public's education and youth reporter, covering schools, child care, the child protection system and anything that matters to kids and families. She's previously reported in Vermont, New Hampshire, Florida (where she grew up) and Canada (where she went to college).
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