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Legislature adjourns after Senate dumps Yecke
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In one of the few conference committees that actually met, Sen. Steve Kelley and Rep. Alice Seagren work out a compromise on the state's education standards. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
The Minnesota Legislature adjourned for the year Sunday morning, ending a contentious session. Lawmakers failed to pass a budget-balancing plan, a capital investment bill or tougher penalties for sex offenders. In the final moments of the session, they passed new social studies and science standards that were agreed to early Sunday morning. They also dumped the state's education commissioner.

St. Paul, Minn. — Cheri Pierson Yecke has been a controversial leader since she was appointed by Gov. Pawlenty more than a year ago. She's a strong supporter of the federal No Child Left Behind Law, and has guided the development of new academic standards. Her supporters say she's a change agent who challenges the status quo, while her critics call her a polarizing force in public education.

The chair of the Senate Education Committee, DFLer Steve Kelley of Hopkins, says Minnesota doesn't need a divisive education commissioner. "It's because we have pride in the quality of our public education system, and we do not want a commissioner who is consistently describing our public education system as among the worst in the country, because we have an achievement gap that we ought to be closing," he said.

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Image A protest from Willmar

Republicans say Yecke is a highly qualified leader who is pursuing the policies of the governor who appointed her.

Yecke is a former history teacher who served as education secretary in Virginia, and worked as a top administrator at the U.S. Department of Education.

Sen. Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, says Yecke has led the state through a period of tremendous change in education.

"She has worked very hard, because she has walked into a situation where there's been a very heavy load. A heavier load of challenges than I remember in the 40 years that I've been in education, that I have known the commissioners," she said.

Olson and other Senate Republicans were outraged by the party-line vote to reject Yecke's confirmation. Senate Minority Leader Dick Day of Owatonna says Senate Democrats have declared war on the governor.

"I think it was a pretty rotten move on their part. And this whole session has been just obstructionist, it's been people that don't want to do anything, they don't want to accomplish anything, and they want to -- I don't know if they're trying to embarrass the governor, but I think they're embarassing themselves," Day said.

Gov. Pawlenty said in a statement that Senate Democrats have "rejected innovation and accountability for education." He said the vote doesn't change his reform agenda.

The Senate voted to confirm the rest of the governor's commissioners, including transportation commissioner Carol Molnau. She was confirmed by a vote of 38-28.

Molnau led the House Transportation Finance Committee her last four years as a state legislator. She served five terms in the House.

A Senate committee had recommended against her confirmation, citing among other things what they thought was inadequate snowplowing last winter and a general lack of commitment toward transit.

The last time a commissioner lost a confirmation vote was four years ago, when Gov. Ventura's appointee, Steve Minn, was removed as head of the commerce and public service departments.

The confirmation votes capped a long legislative day that included lengthy breaks from floor action, and votes on mostly minor bills. The Legislature is required to adjourn on Monday, and the House and Senate have not agreed on a budget-balancing plan, a capital investment bill, tougher sex offenders or new academic standards. An education conference committee met sporadically, but failed to bring a bill to the floor.

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