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On Tuesday, June 10th the Duluth School Board conducted a two hour special meeting, voting to investigate member Art Johnston for various offenses. The meeting seem much longer than that, and occasionally resembled a circus.
The allegations, brought forward by Superintendent Bill Gronseth and School Board Chair Mike Miernicki, include assault (against each of them), racist comments and a conflict of interest.
The list of allegations against
Johnston are as follows:
Alleged abuse of authority as a school board member as it relates to staff member/members.
Alleged conflict of interest in relation to a staff member. Alleged violation of the Code of Ethics, Board Policy 8050.
Alleged assault of or otherwise improper conduct toward the Superintendent of Schools.
Alleged assault of or otherwise improper conduct towards the School Board Chairman.
Alleged racist or otherwise improper comment about a staff member.
Neither man would elaborate about the alleged incidents during (or after) the meeting, despite repeated requests by both members Johnston and Harry Welty to do so. In fact, Gronseth barely said a word throughout the meeting. Privacy laws may have prevented Gronseth from responding. The genesis of this dispute centers around Art Johnston’s contention that school district (ISD 709) administration altered his spouse’s job status (she is a district employee) as a form of retribution for contrary positions he, Johnston, has taken as a Board member.
Vice-chair Bill Westholm, who ran the special meeting (the Chair, being a complainant, recused himself), repeated, ad nauseam, that the “intent of the meeting” was merely to decide whether or not an investigation should be launched by the Board into the allegations; and therefore, there was really no point in allowing public comment, nor even allowing Board members (notably Welty) to ask questions. Again and again he portrayed the meeting as a benign and impartial proceeding. It seemed to be completely incomprehensible to him that a Board member might actually want to know the details of such accusations prior to taking actions that might ruin someones reputation, and which is certain to be a rather expensive proposition.
The school district uses a system wherein a board member turns on a light when wishing to be heard. Throughout the evening Miernicki had difficulty operating the switchboard that turned on and off Board members microphones. Speakers often started speaking only to realize their microphone was still turned off, or they were cut off mid sentence. After lively, often passionate discussion, the board approved hiring Fafinsky, Mark and Johnson, an independent Minneapolis area law firm to investigate the allegations. The vote was 5 to 2, with Johnston and Welty dissenting. “We’re talking about a process that I find deeply flawed and the motivations of the people highly suspect,” Welty said.
Although Gronseth and Miernicki studiously remained silent, Johnston was eager to elaborate on what he believed are the causes of the dispute. During the meeting, Johnston outlined his belief that Gronseth lied to him. and that the investigation was retribution for his outspoken views and that his spouse was now a pawn in the dispute. He also was concerned that the firm chosen by the School Districts counsel, Kevin Rupp, would not be unbiased. “If this goes through with this firm on there this will clearly be a witch hunt, nothing else but a witch hunt,” Johnston said.
The audience of about 50 citizens applauded Johnston’s comments several times during the course of the meeting.
During an interview later that evening with The Reader, Johnston went into much greater detail about the dispute.
Johnston claims that he is not popular with the administration and some of the school board because he has a habit of discovering things and asking questions that they don’t like. For instance, when he discovered that there had been a $19 million change order on Red Plan construction and that the school board had not voted on this as required (and Johnson Controls was paid around $7 million extra), he raised the alarm. At various times he has written to The Reader, the Duluth News Tribune and the Minnesota Attorney General. After the change order the School Board received an email warning from the auditors office warning about having lone board members sign contracts as opposed to votes by the entire board.
“Mr Popularity’s” significant other, Jane Bushey, (although Johnston refers to her as his spouse, they are unmarried, but have been partnered for 14 years) works for the School District at East High School as a nurse who works with extremely challenged youths with various disabilities. She has been there changing diapers happily for six years with excellent performance reviews. Her problems allegedly started when Assistant Principal Cheryl Lien discovered that she was involved with Johnston. Bushey had been subpoenaed 10 months earlier in a custody dispute between the parents of one of the medically fragile students with multiple disabilities who cannot be taken care of in a mainstream classroom. The opposing attorney in the case was Cheryl Lien’s husband Michael. Although Bushey had gotten permission to testify, Cheryl Lien became concerned that the School Board might be sued because of Bushey’s testimony. Cheryl Lien supposedly became critical of Bushey’s performance, resulting in Bushey being removed from the classroom six days before the end of this school year and would likely be re-assigned elsewhere next year.
Johnston claims that the replacement was done so hastily that they really didn’t have adequate replacements to sufficiently watch or nurse these students. In some cases children were tended to by people who did not know what their medical problems were, and some of the children did not have their diapers changed in a timely fashion. Johnston has begun the process of filing a complaint to the Minnesota Department of Education because state law requires that when children are neglected there has to be a reporting responsibility.
Johnston states that he then approached Superintendent Gronseth regarding Bushey’s issues; and claims that Gronseth said he would look into it. Johnston further claims that Gronseth later indicated to him that it wouldn’t be a problem, that Bushey would be able to stay at East.
During the Duluth East High School graduation ceremony last week, Johnston discovered that Bushey was indeed still being transferred, and became upset. Johnston believes the alleged assaults stem from a frustrated conversation he had with Gronseth and Miernicki; but he denied touching either of them. “My demeanor is (that) I’m a fairly strong person, I have a loud voice, but I wasn’t yelling at anybody,” Johnston said. “I’m assuming they’re saying that conflict of interest was me as a school board member was speaking up for my spouse,” He stated that he made it clear he was only involved with those proceedings as a supportive spouse.
Check duluthreader.com for updates.