Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Bus Tragedy Claims Four in Cottonwood. You've undoubtedly seen the coverage in your local media, but I just wanted to chime in and express my deepest sympathy for the entire Cottonwood community and the Lakeview Public School District regarding the accident that claimed four lives yesterday in Southwestern Minnesota. It's times like these that remind us all that regardless of how safe school transportation is--and it is very safe--there are times when accidents involving school buses are going to involve fatalities. It is extremely rare for these fatalities to occur to the children riding on the bus, but it can and does happen.

School transportation safety was going to receive attention at the Capitol this session, largely due to another crash last fall that involved a van carrying a special education student in which the driver and the passenger both were killed. The Office of the Legislative Auditor's report on School District Transportation Study has been heard in both bodies and several bills dealing with transportation safety and other operational aspects have been introduced.

Much of the transportation safety discussion since has revolved around the qualifications and background checks for those who are driving Type III vehicles (vans and cars), whether in the case of a district-owned or contracted vehicle. Senator Rick Olseen (DFL-Harris) and Representative Karla Bigham (DFL-Cottage Grove) will be carrying legislation that will deal with the Type III issue. Senator Olseen's bill will be heard in the Senate Education Policy Committee on Monday, February 25, at 3:00 PM in Room 15 of the State Capitol.

This crash will almost certainly resurrect discussion of seat belts on school buses. Although the final report on the crash is months away and it is unclear whether or not seat belts would have provided meaningful protection to those students who died, the issue will surface. The views on seat belts are quite divergent, ranging from being a "must" to comprising an expensive and largely ineffective means of student protection. I will keep you in the loop as discussions on school bus safety take place.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Lakeview community during this difficult time.

Coverage on crash in Marshall Independent:

Bus Crash Photo Credit: AP

Dueling Librarians. The county and regional library systems faced off in the Senate Education Policy Committee today. Senator Ann Lynch (DFL-Rochester) has introduced SF 2821, which mandates that all libraries in Minnesota be provided access to the electronic library for Minnesota databases regardless of whether or not they belong to a regional library system. Needless to say, the regional library systems don't think this is a good idea and oppose the bill. The bill was recommended to pass on a divided voice vote and I can tell you this: Don't get tangled up in a feud among librarians. It looked like a scene right out of The Godfather (okay, I'm a little sarcastic today)!

Dangerous (or Potentially Dangerous) Dogs Revisited. After attending the hearing on the Dangerous Dog bill yesterday, I thought I better warn everybody to be on the look out for this extremely dangerous dog! This is Sunny (whom I periodically call "Budd Johnson" in honor of the legendary jazz saxophonist who was the subject of the Ben Webster song "Budd Johnson" which is available upon request), the latest addition to the Lundell household. As you can tell from this picture, he has the potential to be extremely dangerous! Look at those yellow eyes! We've had him for almost two weeks and he's getting the hang of housetraining, so next week, it's on to calculus and particle physics. I think he will be able to master those subjects provided he can bring his chew toys to class with him. If worse comes to worse this session, I may have to bring him to the Capitol for those last few late nights. No legislative ankle or pants-leg will be safe from this untamed beast! Of course, he's going to be going to obedience school soon and I don't know how well a tamed beast would do as a lobbyist.

A Chilling Report. Isabel Sawhill of The Brookings Institution and John E. Morton of The Pew Charitable Trust have written a very interesting, and troubling, report about upward mobility in the United States today. The report, "Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Mobility in America" points out how uneven access to high quality education in the United States today will likely have an adverse effect on upward mobility. On face value, this constitutes a "no kidding Sherlock" statement, but in an era where honing human capital has become in many ways more important than the preservation of physical capital, this report is another reminder of how we must invest more in education to ensure the system is both adequately and equitably funded. Doing less will only undermine an economy and society that is based on a foundation of a strong middle class.

Pioneer Press article on report:


Bring Your Helmet. Tomorrow's House K-12 Finance Division promises to be an interesting and tense hearing, as the results of the task force appointed this summer to look at differences in Minnesota and federal special education laws and rules will be presented. This has been a very contentious process, as there have been a number of very close votes on the task force to determine how to proceed. Word has it is that the special education advocacy interests (parents and disability organizations) are extremely disappointed in how things turned out and will be descending en masse tomorrow to make the case why Minnesota has traditionally gone beyond federal law in serving special education populations and how the effort to scale back this tradition will put the economic progress of students with identified educational challenges at risk.

But going beyond federal law is only one of the frustrating issues in terms of the state's special education posture. What is more troubling is the Minnesota Department of Education's penchant for making rules when there has been no legislative authorization to do so. Further, the Department has used the complaint process and policy memorandums to establish statewide policy. This is simply wrong.

There may be valid reasons to exceed federal law in some instances, but I cannot think of a reason why the Department should be able to simply set rules without legislative direction. There may be times that the Legislature will require a nudge or input from the Department as to why rule-making authority is needed for a certain practice or program, but legislative approval should still be required before state special education regulations can be changed.

Not to be sardonic, but I already kid about having to take the "How a Bill Becomes a Law" page out of the 9th grade civics text. I don't want to have to urge the removal of the page on "Checks and Balances between the Branches of Government." The Legislature determines the "whats" of government policy. The Executive Branch, while having input (and plenty of it) in the development of those "whats," once the direction is set, must concern itself solely on the "hows" of implementing the prescribed programs and formulas to meet those goals.

So, if you want to witness an interesting legislative hearing, be in Room 5 of the State Office Building tomorrow at 2:15 PM. It may get a bit testy.

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