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Cassellius hears from two sides at BlueSky Online hearing

Brenda Cassellius
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Brenda Cassellius

At the end of an hourlong hearing Thursday morning, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius asked the two attorneys appearing before her whether they would each like two minutes to make a summation of their cases.

Present to argue that Cassellius should adopt a judge’s nonbinding recommendation that the Department of Education stop trying to close the charter school BlueSky Online, Cindy Lavorato did not. Indeed she said, taking her seat, she hoped it would be the last argument she would ever make regarding the matter.

“This investigation should never have been brought,” she said. “This should have been a matter of technical assistance.”

Lavorato and the assistant attorney general representing the department, Martha J. Casserly, each argued that Cassellius should rule in their client’s favor, but also adopt their proposed exceptions to the opinion issued a month ago by a judge at the state Office of Administrative Hearings.

Normally discussions about things like academic benchmarks are sleepy at best, but in three years MDE’s efforts to revoke the school’s charter have taken on a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, complete with allegations of forgery, infighting and bad faith. MinnPost detailed the chronology and the judge’s findings in this space in November.

Investigation began in early 2009
The gist: In early 2009, acting on a tip from two aggrieved school employees, the department began investigating allegations that BlueSky’s curricula did not meet state standards and that the school was graduating students who had not completed all required coursework.

“After two years of investigation and three days of hearing that generated a voluminous record, the department established that, of the four violations alleged, BlueSky’s algebra curriculum lacked a single benchmark in academic year 2010-2011,” Raymond Krause, chief administrative law judge at the office of Administrative Hearings, advised in that ruling.

“Even the department’s own actions call into question whether the department saw these violations as major,” the judge concluded, noting that at one point MDE forgot about the case for eight months.

Krause, Casserly asserted this morning, did not understand the evidence presented at a two-day hearing in September and, as a non-educator, is not in a good position to evaluate it.

“As an educator, you have the expertise to review and evaluate the material,” she said.

Asks for a step beyond
Lavorato asked the commissioner to go a step further than the judge and declare MDE’s actions in the case “arbitrary and capricious.”

“This is the first time in two and a half years that my client, BlueSky, has had the opportunity to present its case to the ultimate decision-maker,” she said.

In addition to the record compiled by the judge, each side submitted voluminous pleadings; a PDF of MDE’s is here; BlueSky’s is best viewed as two documents found here and here.

Cassellius has 90 days to decide whether to accept the judge’s opinion or to close the school. If she sides with her staff — or more accurately, staff members who worked for her predecessor, Alice Seagren, who, for the most part, have conveniently since moved on — BlueSky is likely to take the case back to court.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/22/2011 - 04:17 pm.

    “In early 2009, acting on a tip from two aggrieved school employees …”

    Union stooges.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/22/2011 - 06:37 pm.

    It’s an interesting case, and I’m still wondering why the MDE decided now was the time, and this was the place, to be so heavy-handed about what seems to be a pretty weak case. Having read all that’s been posted on MinnPost about the situation, it sure appears to be nit-picking at best, and something less admirable at worst.

    Ms. Cassellius doesn’t care what I think, but if I were the one making the ruling, I’d be saying “Keep the place open.” I’m no fan of online education, but if you’re going to close down a school, there should be some genuine reasons, and a lot of them, not a failure to meet a single standard in algebra. At present, the whole situation gives off a strong aura of a witch-hunt. If there are grounds to close the school, they should be substantive, documented, and serious enough that not even allies of the school could say they’re trivial matters. They should not even come close to the sort of nit-picking that now exists in the record.

    If the school merits closing, another opportunity should give the institution, its staff and its students enough rope with which to hang themselves (figuratively), and if that’s what happens, so be it. The fact that these accusations have been made suggests that someone ought to be looking over Blue Sky’s shoulder fairly closely and regularly for the foreseeable future – perhaps a couple of academic years. If it looks like the criticisms have merit, or represent the tip of some sort of educational iceberg, close the enterprise. On the other hand, if Blue Sky is getting positive results with kids who can’t – or won’t – make the adjustment to a normal classroom, then it’s an option that ought to remain viable, and close supervision ought to end in some reasonable period. Otherwise, allies of the school, and I assume there are some, can justifiably make their own case in terms of harassment.

    I’ll add that Mr. Tester, unless he has some documentation to support his assertion, comes dangerously close to exposing himself for libel. Name-calling does nothing to clarify the situation. Why use the term “union stooge?” What does it mean? What proof exists that the obviously negative association being made by its use has any relation to the facts of the case?

    Just sayin’.

  3. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 12/23/2011 - 08:01 am.

    Ray: Union Stooge means nothing, other than its a continuation of the right wing attacks on schools, teachers and workers. That’s Tester’s point.

    There are no Unions at Bluesky.

  4. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/27/2011 - 08:56 am.

    Seems to me that MDE would have a stronger case if 25% of its premier graduates didn’t require remedial coursework on basic, core subjects (reading, writing, math) upon arrival at colleges and Universities.

  5. Submitted by MA Saw on 12/27/2011 - 02:05 pm.

    It is my opinion: the final paragraph sums the entire law-suit. The prior administration brought this suit against BlueSky. But Alice Seagren should NOT be the person who takes the blame. Pawlenty put Chas Anderson – (an inexperienced Pawlenty research staffer from his House days with zero educational background, zero skills in management, zero people skills) in charge of a department that has high profile and over 30 million dollars a year over-sight. Alice Seagren, if you read the details was not the person making the comments or pushing the closure. The article is accurate in stating that the persons who originally brought suit against this school no longer work at the department. It is public record, go look for yourselves like I did. Also look up the article published by the legislative auditor chronicaling the $89,000.00 that taxpayers of Minnesota paid for Chas Anderson to get a Master’s degree. When she started at the department she had a bachleors in the arts, not highly qualified at all.

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