By Andrew McKeever
GNAT-TV News Project
MANCHESTER — John O’Keefe, Manchester’s town manager since 2007, has been appointed to the Vermont State Board of Education by Gov. Phil Scott.
O’Keefe said he was honored that the governor named him to serve on the state board.
“It’s a vital Board at a critical juncture,” O’Keefe said in a statement emailed to GNAT. “As a parent of two middle school students, I hope to bring a unique perspective to the State Board of Education. On a more local level, as the southern most Board member, I plan to work closely with Burr and Burton Academy, the newly organized Taconic and Green school district and other southern Vermont schools to ensure that the educational needs of our region are well represented and understood at the State level.”
O’Keefe has served as Town Manager of Manchester, and has staffed numerous boards throughout his career. Previously he served in Massachusetts State Government, including as legislative director for then-Governor Mitt Romney and for the Department of Transportation, and as a legislative aide in the House of Representatives. O’Keefe also previously served as a budget examiner in New York State’s Division of the Budget, according to the formal announcement made Monday March 20.
O’Keefe’s appointment comes as the state board is attempting to work through a controversy which flared up last fall when the board began exploring whether new rules governing how public tax dollars could flow to private and independent schools were needed. The initially proposed draft rules raised concerns among independent school supporters, who saw the rules, some of which dealt with special education and teacher certifications, as cumbersome and threatened their ability to continue to accept students from towns which tuitioned students to the independent schools and academies.
Last December, a large turnout at Burr and Burton Academy for a state board of education meeting saw dozens of speakers urge the state board to modify the proposed rules. While the issue has not been formally resolved, discussions between the state board and independent schools have been ongoing.
O’Keefe’s appointment drew praise from Seth Bongartz, the chairman of Burr and Burton’s board of trustees.
“The appointment of John to the state board is a breath of fresh air,” Bongartz said in an emailed messsage. ” John understands the positive role of independent schools within the education network and the role that school choice plays in making this area an education destination. John is both thoughtful and innovative. Most importantly, he simply cares about kids and will bring his significant experience and dedication to serving the entire State of Vermont.”
Mark Tashjian, the headmaster at Burr and Burton Academy, was also upbeat about the news of the appointment.
“John O’ Keefe understands the important role that public and independent schools play in serving our communities and making the Manchester region an education destination,” he said. “We believe this appointment will create greater diversify of experience and views on the State Board of Education. John has led the town of Manchester with skill, vision, and fairness.”
The state board is also going to be tasked with overseeing and helping implement changes to Vermont’s educational structure under Act 46, the statute passed in 2015, which encourages school districts to seek consolidations and form larger entities. Earlier this month, during town meeting, Manchester along with eight other local communities voted to form a new regional education district, known as the Taconic and Green district, under the Act 46 process. The new district will start operating in 2018.
Former state senator John Carroll, who represented Windsor County, was also named to the board. He and O’Keefe will serve six-year terms.
Carroll, now retired, volunteers with local Non-Government Organizations (NGOs), supporting management functions and traveling to Ethiopia and Kenya annually, according to today’s announcement. Prior to retirement, he was the Director of Global Services for Hanover-based Hypertherm, Inc. for eight years. Carroll served six years in the Vermont State Senate beginning in 1988, during which he was named majority leader and chair of the appropriations committee. He’s previously served on the Norwich School Board, chaired the Dresden Interstate School Board, and is currently on the Town of Norwich’s Board of Civil Authority and Development Review Board.
“Both appointees have a demonstrated commitment to public service and impressive policy knowledge,” said Gov. Scott. “They both deeply value the importance of education and a strong, effective education system, which is critical as we look to build a cradle-to-career continuum of learning that benefits students, attracts working families to Vermont and strengthens our workforce.”
The Board is responsible for the establishment, advancement and evaluation of public education policy, including regulations governing attendance, student performance standards, adult basic education programs, independent school approvals, and disbursement of funds and equal access to education.
The State Board of Education consists of 11 members – nine voting members and two non-voting members – appointed by the Governor. Carroll and O’Keefe will replace Stephan Morse (Windham County) and Sean-Marie Oller (Bennington County), whose terms expired February 28.
Rebecca Holcombe, the head of the Agency of Education, said she was happy to have the two newcomers join the board.
“I welcome the new members of the State Board, John O’Keefe and Sen. John Carroll,” Holcombe stated in an email. “The State Board has a very important role to play in supporting our communities as they work to provide our students with high quality opportunities to learn, in the most affordable and equitable way possible. I look forward to working with them as we move forward.”