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On June 10th the Duluth School Board (I.S.D. 709) conducted a contentious special meeting, voting to investigate member Art Johnston for various offenses. The allegations, brought forward by Superintendent Bill Gronseth and School Board Chair Mike Miernicki, include charges of assault, abuse of authority as a school board member, conflict of interest and “racist or otherwise improper comment about a staff member”.
The genesis of this dispute centers around Art Johnston’s contention that ISD 709 administration altered his spouse’s, Jane Bushey’s, job status as a form of retribution for positions he, Johnston, has taken as a Board member.
Bushey, Johnston’s long-time partner, is employed as an LPN nurse to care for special needs students, a position she’s held at East High for the past six years. Johnston claims that Bushey was targeted for harassment because of her relationship with him.
Harrison Dudley is the human resources manager of the district’s non-certified personnel, such as Bushey. Dudley is not Bushey’s direct superviser, but is her superior, further up the food chain. Dudley is the person who informed Bushey she would be pulled out of East a week before the end of the school year and that she wouldn’t be returning next year. Mr. Dudley is the only person of color who has been involved in any of the meetings that have ensued over the issue. Some suspect the racism charge leveled against Johnston originated in some kind of remark allegedly made by Johnston about Harrison Dudley. Dudley himself believes he’s at the center of this allegation, but did not want to explain why he suspects so. He did agree, however, to answer some questions, as the only African-American in the school district’s Human Resources Department and a longtime supporter of Art Johnston.
Reader: “Would you describe what you know of the charge?”
Harrison Dudley: “It was just information that was brought to my attention that there were some racial comments supposedly made by him [Johnston] and they were directed, or they reflected, on me. But I’m not sure, you know. I don’t think administration has come out and made any formal charges. Which is sort of sad, you know.”
Reader: “So you don’t know what the comment or comments were at all?”
Dudley: “No. Don’t know what the comments are… don’t know who overheard them, or anything like that. My understanding is that they are still in the fact-finding process, and an investigator will be assigned to interview me. At that time, I’ll have more of an understanding of what is going on.”
(Dudley had just been interviewed by an investigator, as The Reader went to press)
Reader: “What are your thoughts about the racist charge against Johnston?”
H.Dudley: “I wouldn’t think that Art would in any way have any of the characteristics described in what he has [allegedly] done. In all of my interactions or dealings with Art, his support for the disadvantaged and the people who are struggling has always been there. Ever since I have known Art, he has advocated for equality. And he doesn’t just advocate for it. He actually attends functions, making physical and verbal support, like financial support. He does a lot for the disadvantaged section of our community, people of color, and all of sudden for him to—I’m not talking about days, I’m talking about years, he’s been doing this, and now all of a sudden, he has changed? I don’t believe that.”
Reader: “What is your view of Art Johnston, both as an individual and as a School Board member?”
Dudley: “I’m speaking, here, as a parent of students who have attended, and will attend, ISD 709, and as a property owner. I find Art to be a very, very intelligent person, very fact-based. He always asks the right questions that need to be answered. I can see him having some frustration over years of trying to get things—to help get things—on track. There has been limited cooperation with him to move forward with some positive things. But I think that his presence on the Board is needed. He brings a lot of knowledge in the areas that we really need to improve in… and the Board’s situation—like in its relationship with communities that are in need, and attacking the problems of spending, wasteful spending. He is very well versed in those [areas] and has a lot of information that is just pushed aside and not really followed through with the Board. I support him on the Board. I think he’s a man of integrity. I would be really surprised—I mean, heart attack level—if any of this was found to have any type of merit.”
Dudley, his wife Leisa, and their daughter Classie worked on Johnston’s re-election campaign.
The Reader asked Leisa Dudley about the racism charge against Johnston.
Leisa Dudley: “Oh, simply atrocious. I think it’s ridiculous. I think that it’s, it’s… horrible. I can’t believe that this is even happening. I think it has more to do with, you know, [Johnston] might not see the same side as the superintendent, so, it’s ‘Let’s get him out of here…’ I believe Art Johnston would never say anything that would have a racial connotation. That’s just not who he is.”
Reader: “What is your opinion of Art Johnston?”
Leisa Dudley: “ “I think he’s a pillar of our community. I feel like he’s there, all by himself, on the School Board, and trying to do well for the children. I think the School Board has an agenda that’s not appropriate for our kids, or our kids of color—just looking at numbers—the graduation rates, among minorities. The superintendent is right in there with that. [Johnston] is the only one opposing it, and—of, course, ‘Let’s just get rid of him.’ He did not offend anybody. I don’t believe any of it.”
Leisa Dudley expressed concern about possible retaliation by school district administration towards her husband for speaking out.. “Hopefully, they don’t try to fire Harrison.”
Loren Martell has been involved in Public School District issues for several years. He wrote the Red Plan report for the State Auditor’s Office and ran for the Board twice.