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The Vermont Senate declined to confirm Education Secretary Zoie Saunders. She'll serve anyway

A woman wearing a blue blazer stands at a podium and speaks into microphones
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Zoie Saunders at a press conference where her appointment as Vermont education secretary was announced at the Statehouse in Montpelier on March 22, 2024.

In a rebuke to Gov. Phil Scott amid a time of turmoil for Vermont’s schools, the state Senate on Tuesday declined to confirm Zoie Saunders as secretary of education.

But she will serve anyway. Within minutes of the chamber's vote, Scott released a statement announcing that he would appoint her to serve in the role in an interim capacity — a move that circumvents the Senate's confirmation process.

“I’m confident she is the leader we need as we move forward," the Republican governor wrote.

Tuesday’s 19-9 vote did not fall completely along party lines. Three Democrats — Sens. Brian Campion, Dick Sears and Bobby Starr — voted to support the nominee. The Senate’s 18 remaining Democrats and lone Progressive voted against her. Six Republicans voted for her, and one was absent. (The 30-member chamber is down one member since Sen. Dick Mazza, a Democrat, stepped down for health reasons.)

A man wearing a suit and glasses stands to speak. Behind him are two pieces of green-upholstered furniture
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Vermont Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, speaks before a Senate vote on whether to confirm Education Secretary Zoie Saunders on Tuesday, April 30. Baruth voted against Saunders. Amid controversy, Baruth said, "the behavior of the 30 senators here has been exemplary, in my opinion."

While gubernatorial appointments are subject to Senate confirmation, the chamber is usually highly deferential to the executive branch, and the process is nearly always pro-forma. But in the five weeks since theRepublican governor announced that he had picked Saunders to be the state’s education secretary, virtually the entire public school establishment had come out against her appointment.

Her critics had homed in on her nearly seven years at Charter Schools USA, a for-profit charter school management company based out of Florida, and argued her scant experience working in traditional public schools made her unqualified for the secretary’s job. Saunders also worked for the city of Fort Lauderdale as its chief education officer for almost five years, and most recently served as chief strategy and innovation officer for Broward County Public Schools, a post she only held for three months.

A third of school district budgets failed on Town Meeting Day, and tensions around her appointment were also heightened by the greater angst surrounding the future of Vermont’s public schools.

Scott was put on the defensive about his nominee almost as soon as he announced his pick. A week after her selection was made public, he released a scathing statement to the press, blasting lawmakers for “believing misinformation, making assumptions and levying attacks on [Saunders’] character — all without ever having met her or spoken to her.” Pushback about her appointment, he argued, was “based on the state she currently lives in, and a cherry-picked part of her resume that’s been turned into a boogeyman.”

But opposition to her appointment continued to pick up momentum. And on Monday, Scott wrote to Senate leadership, asking them to postpone Tuesday’s confirmation vote.

“I’m concerned about the prospects for a civil and fair Floor debate and vote at this time,” Scott said in a letter firstreported by VTDigger. Scott pointed to a newsletter sent out by Lt. Gov. Dave Zuckerman over the weekend, which had sought to link Saunders to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, as an example of how “poisoned by misinformation” the confirmation process had become. Saunders has never worked for DeSantis, and has repeatedly repudiated the Republican governor’s culture wars.

But the confirmation vote went on as scheduled. In an emotional floor debate Tuesday morning, Saunders’ defenders echoed the governor, arguing that she had been unfairly villainized.

 A man stands in the Vermont Senate chamber
Lia Chien
Vermont Public
Sen. Randy Brock of Franklin County, photographed in June 2023.

Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, a Republican from Franklin County, said that the Senate had spent “a great deal of time over the past several years, talking about immigration status, about national origin, and about discrimination.”

“What I saw in this letter, and in some of the other letters that I've received, is some very inappropriate treatment of this nominee, on the basis of her immigration status, that she's from Florida and therefore carries with her all the baggage that comes from Florida,” Brock said.

The appointee’s critics countered that their apprehensions had nothing to do with the fact that Saunders hailed from a Southern state, and everything to do with her resume.

A man stands at a desk to speak
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Windham Sen. Nader Hashim speaks during a Senate debate over the confirmation of Gov. Phil Scott's education secretary appointee, Zoie Saunders, on Tuesday, April 30.

“Being found underqualified for a job is not a personal attack,” said Windham Sen. Nader Hashim, a Democrat.

Sen. Becca White, a Democrat from Windsor County, said she’d been “overwhelmed” by the amount of public pushback about Saunders. She said she had sat down over the weekend and tallied up the years of experience in public education from people who had written in to object to the secretary’s appointment.

“It would be irresponsible for me to listen to 520 plus years of public education, experience, and professionalism and dedication, and to weigh that against three months of recent public education experience,” she said.

Sen. Martine Gulick, a former public school librarian and Burlington school board member, said she had found Saunders’ answers during her confirmation hearing “lacking in real experience, deep knowledge, and simple know-how of education.”

“Most troubling to me was when I asked about a vision for education in Vermont, I didn't hear one,” the Chittenden County Democrat said.

The Vermont-NEA — alongside organizations representing superintendents, principals, and school boards — had lined up against Saunders’ confirmation. In an interview after the vote, Darren Allen, a spokesperson for the union, said the governor’s actions showed he had no respect for the Legislature.

“The governor today said, ‘I don’t care what an equal branch of government does, I’m going to do what I want to do.’ And what he is going to do is continue his pro-privatization agenda for our public schools,” he said.

The secretary is broadly responsible for ensuring that Vermont’s roughly 80,000 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. Still, the post is highly important.

Vermont’s schools face a slew of acute challenges, includingcrumbling facilities, cripplingworkforce shortages and a declining student population that nevertheless requires a growing number of mental health and social service supports. The state has been without a permanent education secretary for a year now, and education officials say that schools desperately need a trusted leader who will help communities navigate the difficult decisions ahead.

A woman in a green blazer stands at a shared desk flanked by people sitting
Sophie Stephens
Vermont Public
Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, voted against the confirmation of Education Secretary Zoie Saunders because, Cummings said, Saunders did not have the trust of the people she would need to work with in the education community.

Some who cast their vote against Saunders’ confirmation expressed discomfort about the reception she’d received. Washington County Sen. Ann Cummings, a Democrat, said she had “never felt this bad about Vermont.”

“Because I'm learning that we aren't any different. We may be blue, but we can reject people. We can be as vicious as anyone else,” she said.

Ultimately, Cummings said, she would vote against Saunders. The senator said she did not know whether Saunders had the requisite credentials to do the necessary work — but she said she was certain she did not have the trust and goodwill on the ground that she would need to accomplish the task ahead.

“I cannot in good conscience ask somebody to come here and do that very difficult job when 99% of the people that she's going to have to work with have already declared her anathema,” Cummings said.

At the end of the morning’s floor debate, Zuckerman publicly apologized to Saunders for his “factually inaccurate” email, and to the Senate, for “adding to the heat of this topic,” and acknowledged the “better and more respectful arguments that were made today.”

Saunders’ term as interim secretary technically ends March 1, 2025. But she could continue serving in the role in an interim capacity even after her term expires, according to Scott’s press secretary, Jason Maulucci.

Scott could also appoint her on a permanent basis at that time — which would then give the Senate a chance to weigh in again.

“Should the governor be back and should he re-appoint her, we think that she’ll have proven herself,” Maulucci said.

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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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