Manchester TM O'Keefe named to state Board of Education

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MANCHESTER — Town manager John O'Keefe has been appointed to the State Board of Education by Gov. Phil Scott.

O'Keefe and John Carroll of Norwich succeed former chairman Stephan Morse of Newfane and former vice-chairman Sean-Marie Oller of Bennington, whose terms ended on Feb. 28. Scott's office announced the appointments on Monday.

"Both appointees have a demonstrated commitment to public service and impressive policy knowledge," Scott said in a news release. "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."

"I'm honored by this appointment and look forward to working with my fellow [board] members to advance our education system, striving for innovation while maintaining and enhancing strong traditions of quality and school choice," O'Keefe said in the release.

While O'Keefe's responsibilities as town manager don't include the Manchester School District, he has an interest in education and policy. That extends back to his childhood in upstate New York, where his mother, now retired, was a special education teacher.

"I attended public schools, my children attend public school and my mom was a public school teacher, so I'm rooted in the public education system," O'Keefe told the Journal.

O'Keefe's interest in joining the board started with the SBE's December hearing on the proposed Series 2200 rules governing independent schools that accept public funding, such as Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School. O'Keefe was among the speakers at that hearing, which filled BBA's gymnasium, and he said the experience raised his interest in getting involved.

"When I heard about the upcoming opening on the SBE, I decided to apply to the Governor's office," O'Keefe told the Journal. "I have always been interested in education, but my day job as town manager really limits me locally from getting involved at the local level."

"Manchester and the surrounding area has a great educational system. We need to foster that system and encourage innovation and excellence. This seemed like a great chance to do that," he said.

Asked about his priorities, O'Keefe pointed to quality, cost and the need to pursue opportunities for innovation in Vermont, which he said should be doable given the state's small size.

"We need to assure a quality education at a good price. We're currently in a situation where we have diminishing enrollment, while the cost is growing beyond the rate of inflation. That trend has to be changed," he said.

He'd also like to see more public involvement in SBE's policymaking decisions,

"There should be a greater effort to connect with local communities," he said. "I would like to have people come in and talk to us as a board about what's working and what's not working."

O'Keefe is a product of public schools and his daughters attend MEMS. But he said his interest in education extends back to when his mother, Barbara O'Keefe, taught elementary special education in the Ogdensburg, N.Y. school district.

"During breaks from college, I'd substitute as a teacher's aide in special education classrooms, including her classroom, which really opened my eyes to the teacher's experience," he said.

"My mother always approached each student with enthusiasm and worked tirelessly for the betterment of each one," he said. "She always told me that education is not a one-size-fits-all thing, that each person learns differently, and that learning is a lifelong process that is ultimately the responsibility of each person."

Between that, his father's job as a prison warden and his grandfather's memories of walking the beat as a Rochester, N.Y. police officer, "Public service has been something that's been handed down in my family from generation to generation. I'd say it's one of my family's core values," he said.

O'Keefe has been Manchester's town manager since 2007. Previously, he served as executive director of legislative affairs under Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and as legislative director of the Massachusetts Highway Department under Gov. Paul Cellucci and acting Gov. Jane Swift.

He joins the SBE at a time when the board, which is is responsible for setting, advancing and evaluating public education policy, has been under intense scrutiny over the Series 2200 rules.

Some advocates for special education say the rules would assure equal access under the law, by requiring all independent schools to be certified for all 13 categories of special education under state law. Others say the special education requirements in the law would force smaller independent schools to stop taking public tuition students, effectively limiting school choice.

On Thursday, the State Senate Education Committee established a special committee to address the proposed rule changes. Two legislators, a member of the SBE, the secretary of education, and public school and private school representatives will sit on the committee.

The proposed rules "seem like they're looking to fix something that was already working," O'Keefe said.

Carroll, who is retired, served six years in the Vermont State Senate beginning in 1988, during which he was named majority leader and chair of the appropriations committee.

Reach Journal editor Greg Sukiennik at 802-490-6000 and @GSukiennik_MJ


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