Dayton names heads of education, health depts., MPCAby Mark Zdechlik, Minnesota Public Radio,
Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Gov.-elect Mark Dayton on Friday appointed three people to head the state's education, health and pollution-control agencies.
Brenda Cassellius, currently superintendent of an east-metro consortium of school districts, will serve as his Commissioner of Education.
Cassellius taught social studies in Burnsville in the mid-1990s and held administrative positions in both the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts. After a stint as a top administrator in Memphis, Tennessee, she returned to Minnesota in 2007.
Since July, Cassellius has had the job of superintendent of the East Metro Integration District, a consortium of 10 east metro school districts.
Cassellius said she's convinced everyone wants all children to learn and that the best way to improve schools for kids is for adults to work together.
"I believe really strongly that to inspire students you have to first inspire adults," Cassellius said. "I'll really work collaboratively with teachers in the classroom because that's really where the rubber hits the road and where the learning happens."
Dayton was unavailable to talk about his appointments Friday. His Chief of Staff, Tina Smith, said with a $6.2 billion budget shortfall and Dayton's desire to spend even more money on education, he'll be looking to Cassellius's real world, first-hand school experience for ways to get the most out of education spending.
"He thinks that the problem we have is that we're not investing enough in education," Smith said. "He's also said that we need to make sure that every single dollar that we're investing is going to the right things and is being used wisely."
Cassellius plans to meet with Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher this weekend, who said he's looking forward to working with Cassellius. He said the Department of Education under outgoing Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty was too focused on politics and regulations. Dooher said he's hoping the new commissioner will make the department more supportive of schools.
"I think Dr. Cassellius brings some practitional knowledge to it," Dooher said. "I'm hopeful because of her background that she's going to have that perspective and that we're going to be able to use that as a real positive for our schools."
Cassellius is not yet laying out any specific plans for the Department of Education. She said she plans a lot of meetings with public education's many stake holders over the next several weeks.
EHLINGER TO HEAD DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Dayton's other appointments both bring extensive public-service experience.
Dr. Ed Ehlinger heads to the Department of Health from his current position as Director and Chief Health Officer at the University of Minnesota's Boynton Health Service, a job he's held for 15 years. Prior to that he worked for the Minneapolis Department of Health -- also for 15 years.
His dual experiences in public health and medicine figure prominently in Ehlinger's vision for the agency. He said the future of health care depends on crafting a seamless marriage of prevention and treatment services.
"They are not two separate systems," he said. "They really need to come together to work collaboratively to really do a nice package."
Case in point: Ehlinger said the university's Boynton Health Services functions both to promote good health at the university and as a primary care clinic. That collaboration has made it easier for the university to tackle challenging public health issues including tobacco and alcohol use.
Tobacco use among students dropped during Ehlinger's tenure from 41 percent to 18 percent, in part he says, due to the university's strong commitment to prevention programs. It's a health care approach he thinks will work well for all of Minnesota's residents. In particular, Ehlinger hopes it will erase the major health disparities that exist in the state.
"It is one of the black spots in Minnesota, on our record, that we have some of the greatest disparities in the country between the majority population and the minority populations," Ehlinger said. "That has to be addressed."
Rob Fulton, the recently retired Director of the St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Department believes Ehlinger can achieve his goals. He said Ehlinger is experienced and well-respected.
"I'm sure he passes the governor's sniff test," Fulton said. "But I think he's going to be seen as a strong public health person and not a strong political person. And I think in the past they've had health commissioners who've been more political than they have been with a strong background in public health."
AASEN PICKED FOR MPCA
The new commissioner appointee to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Paul Aasen, also has a lot of related job experience. But Aasen's work has been divided between environmental advocacy and government jobs.
Aasen served as Gov. Jesse Ventura's Director of Government Relations and Policy. He was also the state's Emergency Management Director. Prior to that, he worked as an environmental scientist. And most recently he was employed by the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
His scientific background is an asset, said Aasen, that will help him make informed decisions.
"The most logical and reasonable way to protect the environment is to know what levels of pollutants hurt it," Aasen said. "That's the only way you can stand in between someone who wants to discharge that pollution and someone who doesn't want it and say this level is O.K. So we do permit you to pollute up to that level, but not past."
Aasen said his top priorities include the continued clean-up of state rivers and lakes using constitutionally dedicated funds. He also wants to improve the air quality in the metro area.
Aasen's current job drew fire from bloggers on the right, including allegations that he's a litigious extremist who's had a hand in killing jobs in Minnesota.
But Bill Blazar, with the state's largest business group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, welcomed Aasen's pledge to make sure the MPCA moves at the speed of modern commerce.
"I think we would be disappointed if he said anything less than that," Blazar said. "So I applaud his comment that he says that's one of his top three. In fact, I hope he'll make it number one."
One proposal that could signal a new direction for the MPCA during Aasen's tenure is a possible name change. Dayton said Aasen shares his desire to change the agency's name from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to the Minnesota Pollution Reduction agency.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Cassellius is Associate Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. That information was taken from her online biography at the East Metro Integration District, where she is currently superintendent.
- All Things Considered, 12/31/2010, 5:15 p.m.
Mark Zdechlik covers politics for MPR News.