Walz names education, corrections agency heads


Gov.-elect Tim Walz named three more agency leaders Thursday who will help him govern the state when he's sworn in next month.

To head the education department, Walz tapped teachers union leader Mary Cathryn Ricker. Walz is a former teacher, and education is one of the largest areas of the state's budget. Despite funding increases throughout DFL Gov. Mark Dayton's eight years in office, racial disparities in achievement have persisted, and a key goal for the next governor will be to close that gap.

“It’s no secret that this one is personal to me," Walz said. "As a teacher of 20 years, a dad of two kids currently in our public schools in Minnesota, I know so deeply what a quality public school education can do on the trajectory of one’s life.”

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Ricker is currently executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, and for many years taught English at schools in St. Paul, St. Cloud, South Korea and Yemen. Walz had solid support from teacher unions during his campaign. She honed in immediately on the challenge of combating the state’s stubborn achievement gaps.

“We know we are still not where we should be as a state despite our progress in many areas," she said. "We are cognizant that right now some zip codes deliver different experiences to our students than others. Some student experiences remain more valued than others.”

The other finalists were Mankato School District Superintendent Sheri Allen, Cass Lake-Bena School District Superintendent Rochelle Johnson, and retired Osseo School District Superintendent Kate Maguire.

To head the state office of higher education, Walz named Dennis Olson, the executive director of the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and a former director of Indian Education at the education department. The other finalists were former state Sens. Terri Bonoff and Steve Kelley, both DFLers who represented suburban districts.

Walz also chose a new commissioner for the state Corrections Department. Two recent events have put a spotlight on the department and increased calls for more staffing in state correctional facilities. In July corrections officer Joseph Gomm was killed by an inmate at the Stillwater prison. Two months later, Oak Park Heights corrections officer Joe Parise died of a medical emergency after responding to an attack on a fellow officer.

Walz's choice for the top job is Inver Grove Heights Police Chief Paul Schnell, who has worked at several area police departments and held a lead role with the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association during his career. That has brought him repeatedly to the state Capitol, where as commissioner he'll be before lawmakers often.

“I recognize that the safety of our correctional officers is imperative," Schnell said. "Those working in our prisons must, have to feel safe. I will work closely with union leadership and wardens to understand the need for resources to keep staff and everyone in our correctional facilities safe.”

The other finalists were Prior Lake Interim police chief Booker Hodges, who had been under sheriff in the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office and Dakota County's director of community corrections Brian Kopperrud. He previously worked in the Hennepin County corrections department.

As for why he announced the corrections position on the same day as the education commissioners, Walz said the two are linked.

“What we know is what happens in elementary school or before, will shape the trajectory of people’s lives. And if we do this the way Minnesota needs to do this, we need to put the commissioner of corrections virtually out of business.”

Salaries for commissioner-level positions range from $144,000 to $154,000 depending on the position. The pay was last increased in 2015, but those agency leaders still earn more than the governor's $127,000 pay check.

Walz named his initial five agency heads earlier in the week. He has 15 more top-level posts to fill, which he is expected to do before his Jan. 7 inauguration. But there are hundreds of other political appointments Walz will get to make -- from key deputies at state agencies to citizen boards.

MPR News reporter Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.