Little Hearing on the Prairie

In Which Minnesota’s Dysfunctional Board of Teaching Retreats—Literally—to a Barn


Quick: Can you, without asking Siri, locate Avoca, Minnesota, on a map? You can?

What are you doing on Wednesday, when the state’s troubled Board of Teaching, reputation for being disinterested in public input notwithstanding, plans to meet in a barn in far southwest Minnesota?

You’ll have to get up early if you want to make the 8:30 a.m. “breakfast with stakeholders/legislators.” Avoca is three hours from the Twin Cities and a healthy 20 miles from the nearest motels, which appear to be in Worthington.

I’m sure it’s bucolic. Google Earth hasn’t gotten to Avoca yet, but I imagine it as sort of Martha-Stewart-meets-the-Pizza-Farm-craze-meets-Reanimator. Because the business on the agenda includes beginning to draft the rules that will govern the newly created Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

Yeah, I missed that wrinkle, too: The dysfunctional board that’s going away at the end of the year gets first crack at shaping its successor.

Last year the state Legislative Auditor pronounced the board and the system it oversees for deciding who gets to teach in Minnesota classrooms beyond repair. This spring lawmakers created a new, hopefully simpler and transparent system and created a new board to oversee it.

I can’t have been the only one hereabouts wondering whether the board would in fact rise from the dust? I mean, we are talking about a public agency that for six years has found itself unable or unwilling to take in two changes to Minnesota’s teacher licensure law, unruffled by dozens of threatened legal actions and one class-action lawsuit and unfazed by a judicial finding of contempt of court.

The event-friendly barn in question belongs to board member Loy Woelber, who is superintendent of the Westbrook Walnut Grove Schools. Woelber is one of three members of the current board who have applied to sit on the new board.

(Digression: There’s a barn-burner joke in here somewhere, but I just can’t nail it.)

The law outlining membership on the new board is written in such a way that the two institutions that have fought so fiercely for the status quo—Minnesota’s traditional teacher colleges and Education Minnesota—can no longer dominate the board. Current members are ineligible to serve again, with the exception of two seats.

I submit to Woelber and his fellow board members that as well-intended as the barn party idea was—apparently Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and others have enjoyed the prairie hospitality–it’s lousy optics.

Five years ago the board’s meetings were so sparsely attended you could hear footsteps outside in the halls at the Minnesota Department of Education, where a quick check of the archives reveals meetings have been held dating at least to 2012. Representatives of teacher colleges would deliver the “MACTE Minute”—MACTE being an acronym for their institutional group, and that was about it.

But then the agency failed to act on a 2011 directing it to allow alternative teacher training programs to operate and to streamline the process for granting qualified out-of-state teachers permission to work here. The more it ran out the clock, the more teachers seeking clarity as to why their applications were denied began attending, along with leaders of the schools desperate to hire them.

As the years have gone by, the saga has acquired a kind of theater of the absurd quality, complete with a judge’s finding that the board violated state law and testimony in court that the board didn’t think the law was a good one. Members of the public, teachers with amazing, in-demand certifications, the folks who wrote and then rewrote laws trying to get the board to change have showed up at board meetings time and again, only to hear, in response to their testimony, how much better the status quo is.

There are a million reasons why it might have seemed like a trip to the Woelber farm was long overdue, not least of which is a board which oversees statewide affairs might do well to get out of Roseville now and then. But of all the meetings to hold someplace hard for interested–and by now supremely mistrustful—people to get to, why this one?

Will the board actually take up the topic of the new era? And if so will it do so in closed or open session? Where, in a barn, would the board retreat to for a closed-door discussion? Unhelpfully, the agenda is mighty short on clarity.

The new board will be appointed by September 1 and sworn in January 1, 2018. At which point its members can accept or reject any rules drafted by the current agency. When that happens, a hefty dose of sunshine would go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith.


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