After Vermont Senate rejects Zoie Saunders, Phil Scott names her interim education secretary

Education Secretary Zoie Saunders speaks at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell)

Education Secretary Zoie Saunders speaks at her confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee at the Statehouse in Montpelier on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. (VtDigger - Glenn Russell) vtdigger — Glenn Russell

By ETHAN WEINSTEIN

VtDigger

Published: 04-30-2024 12:15 PM

Modified: 04-30-2024 7:00 PM


After a lengthy and dramatic debate Tuesday morning, the Vermont Senate voted against the confirmation of Zoie Saunders as state education secretary — but the fight over her appointment appeared far from finished.

Saunders needed a majority of the 29-member Senate to support her confirmation, but 19 members voted in opposition, while only nine voted in favor. One senator was absent. The vote fell largely, though not entirely, along party lines — with most Republicans supporting Saunders’ confirmation and most Democrats and Progressives opposing it.

Tuesday’s vote in a packed Senate chamber was the first time in recent memory that the body rejected a nominee for a cabinet-level position. In remarks on the floor, some senators criticized the former Florida schools administrator and charter school management executive for her minimal public education experience and limited knowledge of Vermont’s school landscape.

“Most troubling to me was when I asked about a vision for education in Vermont,” Sen. Martine Gulick, D-Chittenden Central, told her colleagues, “I didn’t hear one.”

The result was a striking blow to Gov. Phil Scott, whose administration lobbied heavily for Saunders’ confirmation.

But mere moments after the vote, he made clear that he was not ready to back down.

As soon as the Senate denied her confirmation, Scott said in a press release that, “pursuant to (his) constitutional authority to fill vacancies,” he had appointed Saunders interim secretary of the Agency of Education.

“I’m confident she is the leader we need as we move forward,” he said in a written statement. “In her short time at the Agency, she has identified challenges, which she is already addressing, including mobilizing support to help stabilize operations in the field in collaboration with education leaders.”

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Scott did not indicate whether he would formally nominate Saunders again, which would presumably prompt another Senate vote, or whether he intended for her to serve in an interim capacity in perpetuity.

Scott’s press release did, however, suggest that the governor expects Saunders to remain in the role for at least the foreseeable future. It included a detailed “100-day plan” for her tenure.

Saunders, who did not appear at her confirmation vote Tuesday, did not mention the outcome in a written statement included in Scott’s press release.

She wrote that she was “truly honored for the opportunity to serve as Vermont’s Secretary of Education” at a time in which the agency “needs strong, consistent leadership.”

How the Senate would respond to Saunders’ interim appointment was not immediately clear. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central, who voted against her confirmation, declined to comment.

In an interview soon after the vote, Sen. Ruth Hardy, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee, called it “concerning” that Scott immediately reappointed Saunders.

“I think it sort of circumvents our role as the Senate,” she said, “and that’s circumventing the constitutional separation of powers and the constitutional checks and balances.”

Hardy said she was considering “options” about how to deal with those concerns but wouldn’t say whether her committee would take legislative action seeking to prevent Saunders from remaining in the role.

Peter Teachout, a constitutional law professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School, said he believes that, “at the very least, members of the Senate have standing in court to challenge the governor’s decision if and to the extent it interferes with their ability to vote up and down a governor’s appointment.”

But Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Scott, pushed back on that notion.

“Governors make interim appointments all the time to fill vacancies, pending permanent appointments,” he wrote. “After the Senate vote this morning, a vacancy in the office of Secretary was created.”

Maulucci pointed to the Vermont Constitution, which states that governors “shall supply every vacancy in any office, occasioned by death or otherwise, until the office can be filled in the manner directed by law or this Constitution.”

‘A brief amount of time in public education’

During the morning’s extended floor debate, senators described hearing from hundreds of constituents who expressed opposition to Saunders’ confirmation.

“We were hearing from people who care so much about their public schools that they want to make sure that we have the right leader at the top of the education system,” said Hardy, the Addison Democrat.

Sen. Becca White, D-Windsor, said she’d heard from constituents with a cumulative 520 years of public education experience, which she said greatly outweighed Saunders’ three months working for a public school district.

“We do not need an education secretary with such a brief amount of time in public education, when the leadership role that we are asking that person to take on is almost exclusively about public education,” White said.

Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin, said that, unlike other senators, he believed Saunders was a strong fit for the job, particularly due to her executive leadership.

“I do see a vision. But I also see caution — the kind of caution that you’d expect from anyone coming in new to a situation,” he said. “We need somebody who knows how to fix things. That’s what (an) education secretary does.”

Saunders also received the stalwart support of Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, chair of the Senate Education Committee, who called her “exceptional.”

Campion said Saunders had “vast experience, remarkable intellect, and deep dedication” to expanding opportunities and improving student outcomes.

Sen. Ann Cummings, who voted against confirming Saunders, characterized the fight over her nomination in extreme terms.

“I feel bad about this. This is the first time I have ever felt bad about a vote,” she said, decrying the vitriol ignited by Saunders’ nomination. “I have never felt this bad about Vermont, because I’m learning that we aren’t any different. We may be blue, but we can — we can reject people. We can be as vicious as anyone else.”

Since Scott appointed Saunders to the position in March, she has faced scrutiny over her background as an executive at Charter Schools USA, a for-profit corporation based in Florida, and her brief tenure working explicitly in public education. In the following weeks, a variety of groups — including the state teachers’ union and the Progressive and Democratic parties — came out against her confirmation.

Last week, the Senate Education Committee recommended her confirmation in a 3-2 vote.

The debate reached a fever pitch over the weekend after Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman sent a campaign email urging senators to vote down Saunders’ confirmation. In a response to Zuckerman on Sunday, Saunders wrote that he had made “false claims” about her professional background and views.

In a letter to the Senate on Monday, Scott cited what he called “erroneous comments” by Zuckerman while criticizing the debate around Saunders’ confirmation as “toxic” and calling on the Senate to postpone its vote. The Senate declined to do so.

Speaking from the Senate floor just after Tuesday’s vote, Zuckerman publicly apologized to Saunders and his colleagues for the campaign email and the “inaccurate representation” of an aspect of her background.

“I want to apologize to the Senate for adding to the heat of the debate,” Zuckerman said.

In Scott’s written statement Tuesday, he appeared to again allude to Zuckerman’s email — and other criticism Saunders had faced.

“Zoie’s professionalism, grace, and class throughout this process, despite the unfair, ill-informed treatment, has been truly remarkable and honorable,” he said. “I’m very proud of her and how she has handled these hurtful, false attacks, which makes me and my entire team more confident than ever that she is the right person for the job.”

Scott thanked by name those who voted for Saunders — and castigated those who did not.

“I know all too well how difficult it can be to stand up to the most partisan political activists in one’s party base to do what’s right,” he said. “We need more legislators with this kind of integrity and courage in Montpelier — people who know the difference between the partisan way and the Vermont way.”

Here’s how members of the Vermont Senate voted Tuesday on whether to confirm Zoie Saunders as the state’s secretary of education:

Yes:

■Randy Brock, R-Franklin

■Brian Campion, D-Bennington

■Brian Collamore, R-Rutland

■Russ Ingalls, R-Essex

■Robert Norris, R-Franklin

■Dick Sears, D-Bennington

■Bobby Starr D-Orleans

■David Weeks, R-Rutland

■Terry Williams, R-Rutland

No:

■Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden Central

■Chris Bray, D-Addison

■Thomas Chittenden, D-Chittenden Southeast

■Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor

■Ann Cummings, D-Washington

Martine Gulick, D-Chittenden Central

■Ruth Hardy, D-Addison

■Wendy Harrison, D-Windham

■Nader Hashim, D-Windham

■Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia

■Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden Southeast

■Mark MacDonald, D-Orange

■Dick McCormack, D-Windsor

■Andrew Perchlik, D/P-Washington

■Kesha Ram Hinsdale, D-Chittenden Southeast

■Tanya Vyhovsky, P/D-Chittenden Central

■Anne Watson, D/P-Washington

Becca White, D-Windsor

■Irene Wrenner, D-Chittenden North

Absent:

■Richard Westman, R-Lamoille