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Search is on for Yecke replacement
The search is on for a new state education commissioner to replace Cheri Pierson Yecke. The DFL-controlled Minnesota Senate put Yecke out of work during the closing hours of the legislative session by voting down her confirmation. The Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, has promised he'll pick someone with the same strong views on school reform. That political shoving match is prompting some lawmakers to call for a change in the selection process.

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Pawlenty isn't happy about the vacancy he must now fill in his cabinet. He's still steaming over the party-line vote against the confirmation of Cheri Pierson Yecke, after she'd spent 15 months on the job as state education commissioner. His chief of staff, Dan McElroy, says it could take a month or more to find a replacement.

"The ability to do a national search or to attract a really outstanding candidate, to uproot his or her family and move here, was made more difficult by the action taken by the Senate. That's part of the discussions we need to have with Senate leaders," he said.

One of those leaders is DFL Sen. Steve Kelley of Hopkins, chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He led the charge against Yecke. Kelley says potential candidates shouldn't be fearful. He says every confirmation is unique.

Good leaders are able to implement reforms and bring people on board with them and be responsive to various ideas, even if they're a little different than theirs.
- Carrie Lucking, Hopkins social studies teacher

"The Senate was passing on the qualifications and leadership of a particular person recommended by the governor for a particular job. If there was a message at all, it's that we want a commissioner who's going to work to bring people together," Kelley said. Kelley says that approach will be necessary as the state takes on new federal testing requirements and works to close the racial achievement gap. He says the completion of new statewide academic standards should make the job somewhat easier for the next commissioner.

Carrie Lucking, a Hopkins social studies teacher, is also looking for a consensus builder. Lucking headed a campaign to stop the Yecke confirmation. Her criticisms weren't about political ideology, but rather a leadership style she saw as too divisive. She says she hopes the governor picks someone who can work with all of the education groups.

"Good leaders are able to implement reforms and bring people on board with them and be responsive to various ideas, even if they're a little different than theirs, and still implement policies and get things done," Lucking said.

The Department of Education has a tradition of leadership turnover. Yecke's predecessor, Christine Jax, served four years. But before that, there were six commissioners in nine years.

Dennis Rettke, executive director of the Minnesota Rural Education Association, says he doesn't want to see a revolving door again. Rettke, who testified before the Senate Education Committee in favor of Yecke's confirmation, says most local school leaders are facing tough financial times. He says they want stability in state education policy and leadership.

"Our schools in the field are going to say okay now what? And anything they're working on probably gets put on hold. A new person has to step in and get up to speed and so on. I don't think that is helpful, but that's the way it works in Minnesota and we have to live with it," according to Rettke.

Rettke favors a change in the appointment process. So do several lawmakers. Rep. Marc Buesgens, R-Jordan, says he thinks the Yecke vote shows the need to resurrect the state board of education, which lawmakers abolished nearly five years ago. His plan would let voters elect the board. Board members would then have the responsibility of hiring an education commissioner.

"K-12 education, I think more than any other area of state government, is incredibly sensitive and incredibly susceptible to political, for lack of a better word, interference. And I think it is very important to put a buffer between the commissioner position and politicians in the Legislature," Buesgens said.

Buesgens says if re-elected he'll push for the change in the 2005 session. Senator Kelley says he also wants to restore the state board of education. He's undecided about whether that board should also appoint the commissioner.

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