Kathleen James: Notes from a new legislator

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By the time you read this, exactly one month will have flown by since I was sworn into the Vermont House of Representatives as a brand-new legislator. Forty new members were elected this past November, the largest freshman class since 1992.

I drew Seat 43, just one row and a few chairs over from my Bennington-4 district-mate Cynthia Browning, and was assigned to the Education Committee and selected as committee clerk.

I was thrilled with this placement and hope to be a strong and balanced voice for both public and independent schools.

Led by committee chair Kathryn Webb, we got off to a fast start by considering H.3, the Ethnic Studies bill, which passed the House by a unanimous 140-0 roll-call vote on January 24. This legislation is an important first step toward changing the way we teach students about the history and contributions of ethnic and social groups that historically have been overlooked, marginalized, discriminated against and persecuted.

The goal: Create a more inclusive, tolerant Vermont by teaching students the history of all of us.

We also spent quite a bit of time taking testimony on a passel of bills related to Act 46, Vermont's landmark school-consolidation law. (It's the latest, but not the first: In 1892, the so-called "Vicious Act" closed 100 small schools and reduced the number of districts from more than 2,000 to less than 300!)

The discussion in our committee centered on a proposed one-year delay for communities grappling with involuntary or "forced" mergers. We heard from communities that pleaded eloquently for the extra time, from communities that believe a delay will undermine their progress, and from communities that have successfully merged and are now starting to realize benefits—sharing staff and resources, saving money, offering more programs to kids, and providing families with intra-district school choice. The legislature likely will have taken action by the time this issue of the Journal is printed, though I'm learning that things change quickly — and constantly — under the golden dome.

Most of my time is spent on committee work.

Beyond that, I've joined several caucuses that work across party lines to make progress and propose legislative solutions on important statewide issues. I regularly attend the Climate Solutions Caucus and the Rural Economic Development Working Group.

As time permits, I'm also following the Women's Caucus, the Working Vermonters Caucus and a group focused on affordable childcare. Time-management is a challenge — there are so many fantastic projects underway. I want to learn as much as I can while staying focused.

Speaking of time management: Constituent communications is a high priority for me.

Legislators receive an awful lot of emails—from various interest groups and from Vermonters across the state. When sifting through the daily inbox deluge, I'm focused on responding to every Bennington-4 resident who reaches out to me. If you send an email and don't hear back within a few days, please try again — it's an oversight, not a slight.

I'm also posting regularly on my legislative Facebook page (Kathleen James VT State Representative), sending occasional e-mail newsletters (to add your name to my list, use the blue "Sign Up" button on my Facebook page), and holding office hours across the district (follow my Facebook page and e-newsletter for dates and times). My email address is kjames@leg.state.vt.us.


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