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Cassellius hears from two sides at BlueSky Online hearing

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has 90 days to decide whether to accept a judge’s recommendation that her department stop trying to close the school.

Brenda Cassellius
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.

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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.

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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.