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Education is theme as Walz names 3 more state agency heads

December 20, 2018
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Paul Schnell, center, speaks during news conference at Farnsworth Aerospace Magnet School, after Governor-elect Tim Walz, left, announced him as his selection for Commissioner of the Department of Corrections, Thursday Dec. 20, 2018 in St. Paul, Minn. (John Autey/Pioneer Press via AP)

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Education was the theme Thursday as Democratic Gov.-elect and former teacher Tim Walz went to a St. Paul school to name three cabinet members to help lead the state’s K-12 and higher education systems, as well as the state’s prison system.

Walz said his decision to announce the three positions at the same time was deliberate because when the education system fails students, they can end up in the corrections system. Improving educational opportunities was a cornerstone of his campaign.

The governor-elect named middle school teacher Mary Cathryn Ricker, the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, as his commissioner of education. He made the announcement surrounded by flight simulators at Farnsworth Aerospace, a school for pre-kindergarteners through 8th grade students where Ricker once taught when the building housed a design program.

“I learned how a first chance for students often depended on the second chances or opportunities the adults in our lives got,” Ricker said.

Walz also named Dennis Olson Jr., executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and former director of the state’s Office of Indian Education, as commissioner of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Olson, who also served as education commissioner of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, is an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Ojibwe.

Lt. Gov.-elect Peggy Flanagan, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said she “couldn’t be more excited” about Olson’s appointment.

“It is so important for young people to see leaders who look like them,” Flanagan said. “From teachers in the classroom to commissioners under the administration, they show what is possible.”

Walz picked Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell as his corrections commissioner. Schnell spent the first 10 years of his career working in community-based correctional programs and the last 25 years in law enforcement, including posts as a St. Paul police officer and department spokesman, and as police chief in Hastings and Maplewood.

“We need to collaborate with Minnesota’s educational resources in an effort to first ... prevent Minnesota’s youth from accessing the criminal justice system in the first place,” Schnell said.

Walz announced his first five commissioners Tuesday. His transition team received nearly 500 applications for 23 commissioner positions, which require Senate confirmation. His inauguration is Jan. 7.

The teachers union Education Minnesota applauded Ricker’s appointment.

“Every teacher and education support professional is standing a little taller today because one of us — a teacher —will lead one of the largest agencies in state government,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said in a statement.

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