Rogue state teaching board fined and cited for contempt of court

How many court orders does it take to compel state education officials to follow the law? A courtroom showdown over the serial intransigence of the Minnesota Board of Teaching has led to a rare contempt of court citation and $7,100 in penalties imposed on the controversial agency.

Court transcripts show the Minnesota Board of Teaching and the Minnesota Department of Education not only snubbed a teaching license application request from plaintiff Joan Dobbert, but also a standing Ramsey County District Court order for the Board to expedite the process.

“They’re not interested in following the law, they’re clearly not interested,” Dobbert said. “If it was me, I would be doubly certain as a government employee that I communicated three times over with anybody who tried to apply to make sure that everything got done.”

Although Dobbert has a Master’s Degree in education, her application for an early childhood alternative teaching license has been thwarted for years.

“I didn’t think I was being clever in my order. It really was simply, here’s the law, folks, follow it,” Ramsey County District Court Judge Shawn Bartsh said in a May 20 hearing. “And I am still baffled why the Board of Teaching or the Department of Education thinks it gets to do anything other than that. The law is clear. It’s not an obtuse law.”

The Board of Teaching’s legendary reputation for flouting state law and legislative reforms to streamline the licensing process for out-of-state teachers and applicants like Joan Dobbert led to a 2015 lawsuit.

A Ramsey County District Court ruled in December that the Board had violated state law for years by refusing to implement reforms and process applications from scores of well qualified educators, including Dobbert.

Joan Dobbert (right) has waited for years for the Minnesota Board of Education to allow her to apply for an early childhood education teaching license.
Joan Dobbert (right) has waited for years for the Minnesota Board of Education to allow her to apply for an early childhood education teaching license.

But nothing changed for the rural Princeton, Minnesota resident. She never heard back from either agency on her request to apply for an alternative teaching license via portfolio.  So her attorneys pressed Judge Bartsh in May to find the state agency in contempt of court.

“The Board did not identify a single affirmative action it took to ensure Ms. Dobbert’s application would be timely accepted and processed,” attorneys Rhyddid Watkins and Nathan Sellers said in court documents.

“The Board similarly did not explain why it did not follow up with MDE (Minnesota Education Department) about Ms. Dobbert’s application, why it did not follow up when the Court asked for a status report on all plaintiffs, or why it chose to ignore Ms. Dobbert’s requests for help.”

In court hearings, the Teaching Board blamed the impasse on continuing confusion with MDE over which agency has jurisdiction over licensing. That was a key finding of a critical State Legislative Auditor’s report released in March 2016.

“It didn’t work for Ms. Dobbert because somebody didn’t communicate information that needed to be communicated to her, you know, apologize, and that shouldn’t have happened,” said Assistant Attorney General Oliver Larson in the hearing. “But is that, you know, contempt on behalf of the Board? I don’t think so.”

But an exasperated Judge Bartsh ultimately issued a rare court sanction of the state agency nevertheless.

“If I’m frustrated, it’s because you guys have been here for a year, and I don’t understand why, it’s moving like a glacier, when I and the legislature and the legislative auditor are all telling them the same thing. I just don’t understand it,” Bartsh said according to court transcripts.

The Board of Teaching declined to comment on Bartsh’s July 1 contempt citation, but again acknowledged the need for reforms.

“The governance and understanding of teacher licensure activities in Minnesota has been muddied by confusing and conflicting statutes and administrative rule.  The Board remains committed to working with the Minnesota Department of Education and the teacher licensure study group of the Minnesota Legislature to clarify jurisdiction and governance of the teaching profession in the coming months,” Board of Teaching executive director Erin Doan said in a statement.

Board of Teaching executive director Erin Doan testifying at the Minnesota State Legislature.
Board of Teaching executive director Erin Doan testifying at the Minnesota State Legislature.

The court awarded $7,100 in penalties to Joan Dobbert, who will use the settlement to partially pay for classes taken for her teaching license. The plaintiffs are represented pro bono by Rhyddid Watkins of Faegre Baker Daniels and Nathan Sellers of Fabyanske, Westra, Hart and Thompson.