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First, full disclosure: I worked on both of Art Johnston’s campaigns and have spent many hours with him, trying to decipher the complex world of school district finance and the fiscal state (often Red) of ISD 709. When I first saw the list of charges lodged against him, I initially thought they were theoretical in nature, charges that could be applied under some district policy or state statute. In other words, some of the charges were so serious I assumed the whole list was some kind of evildoer grab bag, and only one or two of the lesser charges would actually be leveled against him. When every charge was read into the record during the special school board meeting of June 10th, it was quite a surprise.
The most serious allegations are two assault charges and the charge that Mr. Johnston uttered a racist comment towards a staff member. One part of the assault appears to amount to Mr. Johnston touching Superintendent Gronseth on the shoulder, to get his attention during the East High commencement ceremony. The rest of the alleged assault appears to amount to finger pointing (literally). Mr. Johnston apparently pointed the assaulting appendage at the Superintendent and the Chair of the Board during a dispute. Bruised egos aside, it is difficult to imagine how a wagging finger assaulted either one of them. I was unable to reach Mr. Miernicki for an explanation; he and the Superintendent refused to respond to repeated requests at the board meeting (made with special ardor by Board member Welty) to explain the specifics behind the allegations, during the special meeting.
The alleged racist remark is the most incendiary of all the charges, and quite frankly, a shock to anyone who knows Johnston, who has passionately worked for racial equality in the schools. He continually brings up the achievement gap during meetings with great concern. Several members of Johnson’s re-election campaign team were people of color.
Those making the charges hit a wall of skepticism and suspicion by concerned citizens at the June 10th meeting. Vice-chair Bill Westhome elicited loud scoffs from the audience when he said: “We’re just here to start the process approving a resolution (for an investigation). That does not mean we’re starting the process by favoring either side.”
The special meeting to initiate the investigation was called by the three board members: Annie Harala, Judy Seliga-Punkyo and Rosie Loeffler-Kemp. Seliga-Punkyo is the only Board member who refused to go along with any amendments offered to the resolution. The others went along with one amendment requiring a monthly report to the Board as to the ongoing cost of the investigation. Johnston’s own cost estimate for the entire procedure, to be conducted by an Eden Prairie law firm (and which he described as a “witch hunt”), is $200,000.
He (or she) without sin...
During the special meeting, Member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp brought up the Board’s “Code of Ethics” as justification for the investigation. Johnston listed just a few of the Board’s ethically questionable past actions: “I attempted to be arrested once…there’s a citizen sitting out in the audience who was put in handcuffs…people have had the microphone turned off…”
Member Welty observed that “one of the three people who brought the motion to have this meeting (Seliga-Punkyo) stalked out of a meeting while Member Johnston was speaking within the last month. I wonder about the impartiality of that particular person.”
One week later, the people have a belated say.
I can imagine it must be pretty nerve wracking to be a public official knowing you’ve ticked off a whole bunch of citizens. I wasn’t the one on the hot seat, and yet I was still somewhat reluctant to go to the June School Board meeting. When I walked into the boardroom of ISD 709, people were already milling about. A bristling firebrand strode into the room behind me with a “FIRE! GRONSETH!” sign. Anger was palpable.
The only possible way to capture the gist of this daunting, four-hour tournament is to isolate the prevalent themes of the debate. The first theme burst out of the gates right after the pledge of allegiance, before the brimming citizenry was allowed its chance to vent. The debate over approval of the meeting’s agenda, which lasted for over a half hour, was essentially another argument over what basic rights should be protected for Board minority members. This kind of Board stress would be greatly reduced if the majority could hewn out a bit more hegemony. It takes at least two minority members to get a second on a motion and force an extended debate. Get rid of one…
During years of meetings I’ve attended (a wonky wonderment mystifying even to me), Board’s minority members have complained about the agenda process. The dissenting voices in the boardroom of ISD 709 have not had one actionable item on the agenda for nearly a decade. Only the Board clerk and chair are allowed in the agenda-setting sessions. (All of administration, however, is entitled to be present.) At the end of the year, the chair and clerk sometimes just switch positions, and the same two keep everything bottle-necked. Issues the administration or the Board majority would rather not address are not allowed on the agenda. Often, the majority even blocks discussion from occurring during Committee meetings.
Stress ratcheted up recently because of documents Art Johnston uncovered, which showed that two previous Board chairs (Tim Grover and Ann Wasson) signed off on millions of dollars of Red Plan change orders without informing the full Board. Members Welty and Johnston want a discussion of the issue, particularly in light of a recent bulletin sent out to all school districts from the Minnesota State Auditor’s Office, warning districts about this very issue.
The missive states: “Generally, the governing body of a public identity, as a whole, must approve the expenditure of public funds…A public official who individually agrees to a payment of public funds runs the risk that the governing body may disagree. When that happens, the public official may be personally liable for the payment.”
Board member Welty later interpreted the language this way: “If we (the full Board) were to later decide that we weren’t going to pay for that change order, then the individual Board member who signed off (in this case, the Chair) would have to pay.” He said he wants a review of policy, so such missteps will be avoided in the future. A large portion of the change order money went straight to Johnson Controls(JCI) and both he and Johnston want some accountability for the money. Welty said that the JCI contract had been in effect renegotiated (raising Johnson Controls percentage take from the original contract from 14% to 25%), without a vote by the full Board.
Blocked out of all normal channels of parliamentary procedure, Welty and Johnston have been left with only one means of being heard on public access channels and getting their concerns on the record. The protocol of meetings is boring (I can easily envision Hell as one eternal government meeting), but Welty and Johnston make motion after motion to add amendments to existing resolutions on the agenda. One makes the motion and the other one seconds it. In this way, they can force an extended debate.
The upshot of this approach is that the usual stress involved in debating policy is compounded by a dispute over process. School Board meetings get really long, with the minority members talking profusely with no actual power, and both sides becoming angry and annoyed with the each other for what they see as abuse of the system.
The majority’s patience is strained whenever Mr. Johnston points out, as he did again in this meeting, that he’s “never had an item put on agenda in the last four years.” And Mr. Welty chimes in with a characteristic philosophical note, pointing out once again, that the purpose of parliamentary procedure is to “make sure the minority has an opportunity to speak its mind.” Johnston also brought up, again, with some yearning, the open agenda sessions held by the city council. He made a motion to add an item to the agenda, to have a discussion about how the agenda is set.
Member Seliga-Punkyo responded, “This whole amendment…this motion, the whole issue has been asked and answered multiple times, numerous times. I don’t know how many (times) this has been asked and answered…” She pointed out that the Board was not the city council and argued that the Board’s committee meetings are like agenda setting sessions. (Except some subjects like the change order dispute are banned, and they don’t set the agenda.)
Meanwhile, the clock ticked and the public grew antsy. It became apparent that most citizens attended the meeting for one reason only--to back up Art Johnston--- and protest what they saw as a an obvious attempt to use trumped-up charges to silence and ultimately eliminate a contrarian.
But first, Anita Stech introduced another theme of the meeting:
Any real-world chance for civility?
An advocate from the Civility Project, Ms. Stech defined civility in public discourse as “claiming and caring for one’s own identity, needs and beliefs without degrading someone else’s in the process.”
After this plea for peace, citizen Paul King sprang up to microphone. Mr. King was the firebrand with the “FIRE! GRONSETH” sign. He strode up to the dais and held his sign near Superintendent Gronseth, for a memorable moment captured on film and run in the paper the next day. Mr. King forcibly argued that he didn’t believe the superintendent--an unelected, administrative official--should be sitting in the middle of “an elected body.” Addressing the Board, he said, “You guys are the worst, the absolutely worst governmental body in the area!” Mr. King was followed to the podium by his brother, Israel Malachi, who began by saying, “Hello, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m your boss--the taxpayer…As a citizen and your boss, I’d like to see the medical report--the injuries suffered from the (alleged) assault (by Mr. Johnston on the superintendent and Board chair)--and the police report.” (At this point, no such evidence appears to exist.) Marcia and John Stromgren also each took a turn at the podium, to complain about high tax bills caused by the profligate Board and to express support for Art Johnston as a watchdog. Jane Bushey, Art Johnston’s significant other, fought back tears as she declared all the charges made against Mr. Johnston stem from the fact that he was just trying to defend her. Brad Clifford, a member of the Seventh Senate District DFL Board, said that as a community organizer he enjoys debate. Referring to the reputation the Board’s majority has for being less than receptive to other voices, he said he found it difficult to reconcile “that we talk about inclusion, and then exclude the minority.”
One of the more common sense remarks came from Denette Lynch, who saw the disagreement between the Board chair, the Superintendent and Mr. Johnston as “a personal dispute.” She urged them to settle the dispute through mediation, rather than requiring “taxpayers to write a blank check because you three cannot work this out as reasonable adults.”
After weathering another blistering storm of criticism, the Board tried to move on, plodding through the Education and Human Resources Committee reports, which consisted mostly of routine business. By the time we reached the Business Committee report, more than two hours into the evening, most of the protestors had found the exit, illustrating once again how government defangs the populace through sheer, boring inertia.
The civility theme came up again in the Business Committee debate, when a resolution was introduced to reaffirm the Board’s commitment to the nine tenets of the civility code. Ironically, it was revealed that the resolution had been slipped onto the agenda without the knowledge of the full Board. While Member Johnston expounded on the need for the Board to act in a more civil manner, Human Resources Manager Tim Sworsky leaned towards me. Pursing his lips, Mr. Sworsky hissed with considerable vehemence: “He should start with himself!” It is an understatement to say a bit of resentment has built up between administration and Mr. Johnston. Johnston made a motion to include “honesty” as one more tenet of the code. Member Seliga-Punkyo spoke out against this idea, claiming the same issue had been voted down two years previously--an inaccurate assertion. Two years ago, the word was “Truth.” The majority view back then was that “truth” couldn’t be added, because “there’s so many versions of the truth.” Members Seliga-Punkyo, Loeffler-Kemp and Westholme voted against adding “honesty” to the code.
Pompoms or subpoenas?
Approval of the district’s annual budget for fiscal year ‘15 brought into focus another theme of the meeting: Is the purpose of the Board to be a cheerleading squad for administration, or the public’s ombudsman? During yet another lengthy debate, Member Loeffler-Kemp offered thanks “to our finance folks--Mr. Hanson and Mr. LeBlanc--for providing the information to help us make this informed decision (about the budget) tonight.” Members Welty and Johnston, in contrast, complained that the flow of information to the Board was insufficient to make a well-considered decision. Welty requested, once again, that the Board be given an explanation for large deficits projected by the district’s finance department, just a few years out.
Member Johnston returned to his perennial concern over enrollment numbers. He called the end-of-the-year enrollment number--8459--“the lowest probably in a hundred years.” Minnesota Department of Education figures show 10,893 students were enrolled when Mr. Dixon stepped into Duluth. A plummet of 2434 students should emphasize for anyone paying attention, that the Duluth public school system is in very fragile shape and can ill-afford another bruising community fight.