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Kevin Rupp, chief attorney for the Duluth public schools, gave the school board three options in regard to the Art Johnston brouhaha: (1) Do nothing and let the whole thing drop, (2) Censure Mr. Johnston (essentially an official finger wagging) or (3) Remove him from office.
Not overly fond of the Board’s Lone Ranger, majority members were clearly not inclined to choose option number one. Most people trying to read the tea leaves (a strange brew when it comes to the Board) predicted option number two would be the choice. They assumed the Board would balk at the very thought of option number three, a.k.a. the nuclear option.
Blending a mix of clown and Nazi behavior is not easily done, but the school board has thrown itself into the endeavor for several years. The Red Plan’s wreckage—the Board’s enduring gift to us all—will linger in Duluth for generations to come. With its reputation on the rails, and with a school district of 8,000 students still struggling to regain some equilibrium after nearly a decade of mayhem, most people (being clear-minded and sane) just assumed the school board would be disinclined to stir up another mucky mess of controversy and bad PR. For the Board’s majority members to actually want to propel themselves into the legal circus required to remove one of their colleagues from the Board (over a bunch of overblown nonsense) struck many as a wanton act of self-destruction bordering on lunacy.
I’ve been visiting the asylum for quite a while, though, and can personally attest to the fact that lunacy has never been a disqualifier for school board action. Warnings have been crackling like lightning bolts in the boardroom for some time: we were all destined for a wild ride to Loonyville.
Special School Board Meeting: 12/2/14.
Two wing walls extend out from either side of old Central’s auditorium to create a cloistered space around the school board. This space is covered with indoor/outdoor carpeting. Beyond the walls, the floor is uncarpeted and there’s a cluster of old, creaky desks for the audience to sit in.
A cushioned chair sat empty near the inside corner of one of the wing walls when I walked into the boardroom. Cushioned chairs are a rare find in the boardroom, and I immediately attempted to take possession of it. The Business Office secretary, Melinda Thibault, called out my name and said, “You can’t take that chair!” When I looked at her quizzically, she explained, “It’s reserved for someone. They’re not here yet, but they’re coming!”
I wondered who “they” were, but didn’t question it further and hunted for another semi-comfortable chair. People kept coming into the room, and several went straight for the vacant chair. It had upholstered arms and a nice cushy-looking bottom, and everybody wanted it. Ms. Thibault kept shouting out and actually ran over a few times and shooed people away. Someone turned to me and said, “What’s the big deal? I wonder who’s got dibs on the chair.”
Reading Ms. Thibault’s strange demeanor, and tapping into years of boardroom experience, I added things up and ventured, “My guess would be a cop.”
Sure enough, right before the meeting began, a police officer came in and sat with folded arms on that nice cushy chair. Before the meeting was over, four police officers had made an appearance in the room. A heavy police presence (at least to my way of thinking) is a pretty strong indicator that a government body is about to do something very unpopular and undemocratic.
The problem is that attitude!
Some of the people who coveted the cushy chair the cop ended up with were school district administrative staff. There was an overflow of administrators at this meeting. So many showed up they had to hunt for chairs and find space to squeeze in. Several former Board members were also in the room, as well as a sizeable contingent of union and DFL bigwigs, including the daughter of one of the five Board members trying to remove Johnston. Let me state without reservation that most of these people were not pro-Art Johnston. In fact, witness chairs in an execution chamber would likely have been overflowing with most of the same crowd.
These people were looking for Art Johnston’s head.
As a candidate for the Board in ’11, I drove to every school, walked in, introduced myself, and spoke to anyone who would speak to me. Some of the school principals graciously gave me their time. The principal of Stowe Elementary proudly showed off the earthworm composting site and other environmentally friendly assets of his school. A few other principals invited me to sit in their offices and talk for a few minutes. I was surprised by the welcoming openness, given my own infamous battles with the school board, but every one of them was nice. The only thing that seemed to set their teeth on edge was Art Johnston’s name.
One principal said, “I don’t even want to talk about that man. I have no time for him.” I persisted, though, probing for her reasons, and discovered she couldn’t articulate a single, specific complaint about Mr. Johnston—no disagreement with his goals, no policy differences, per se. She kept complaining about the way he “acted,” about his conduct during meetings.
She just didn’t like his ATTITUDE.
Stop saying that!
I will put quotations remarks around the word “investigation” when referring to this spectacle, because in my opinion it simply doesn’t rise to that level of credibility. In fact, the whole presentation would have been more aptly heard in front of that scrappy little television jurist Judge Judy. She would have gotten to the bottom of this stuff. “You’re telling me, Mr. Westholm,” Judge Judy would have screeched with acerbic disbelief, “that according to your testimony, you may have been as little as fifteen feet from Mr. Johnston in the DECC arena lot. Not inside, where it was noisy, but outside, and he was ‘raising his voice, upset, yelling at Miernicki.’ You saw everything clearly, but didn’t hear a word? Nothing? I’m about ten feet from you right now, sir! Can you hear me, Mr. Westholm? If I moved back another five feet, would that be outside your hearing range? Unless you’re audibly impaired, and I see no assertion of such a problem in your testimony, what you’re claiming doesn’t make sense, sir. And if it doesn’t make any sense, it’s not true!!!”
During the questioning of Mary Rice, the attorney behind this faux “investigation,” Member Welty asked how much weight should be put on the testimony of “a friend of 50 years who would support his buddy.” (Chair Miernicki and Board member Westholm have been lifelong friends.)
This remark drew a spark of vitriol from the usually mild-mannered Westholm: “I’ve known Mr. Miernicki for 50 years, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to lie about something!” In a strongly assertive voice, reminiscent of his past life as a school principal, he ordered Welty to “Stop saying that!”
The question is not really Mr. Westholm’s veracity, though. The question is, why should anyone believe him over Art Johnston? Two people are involved in an incident and have polarized versions of that event. The only witness is the alleged victim’s buddy of 50 years, and this impartial “investigator” finds there is absolutely no reason to question his testimony?
For that matter, why should anyone believe the word of the six people testifying against Mr. Johnston over what Johnston says? There’s clear reason to question motive. Everybody knows the five majority Board members and the superintendent have wanted to throw him to the wolves for a long time.
“Judge, jury, and executioner,” was Mr. Johnston’s disparaging description of the attorney “investigator.”
Even Chair Miernicki frankly pointed out the futility of everyone suffering through the maladroit ordeal: “You’ve got to know we’re not going to change anybody’s opinion up here [on the Board] or out there [in the audience]!”
Indeed, the whole drama was nothing but candy for the mainstream media. The majority members walked into the room with their five-page execution resolution already in hand. Mr. Johnston would have faced better odds under sharia law.
No one will ever say, however, that the Lone Ranger doesn’t have any fight in him. He went after the credibility of the “investigation” report by asking Ms. Rice, “What good is your report—I’m estimating we’ve already spent close to $50,000 on it—if you don’t have anyone under oath?”
“I have no understanding of the significance of being under oath in this context…” Rice responded. “What someone says under oath or what he or she says to a reporter—they’re still saying the same thing.”
“Some people would laugh at that last statement… What good is a report when nothing is under oath, when it’s all just hearsay—your hearsay—you just deciding that this person was telling the truth and that person wasn’t?”
Assumingly, the legal community will be relieved to learn they can just chuck all that bothersome “oath” business. And God certainly will be happier. He won’t have to sit around listening to a bunch of boring testimony day after day, making sure nobody’s fibbing. It was a mercy on Him that He didn’t have to listen to all this crap. He might not have been able to hang in there for eternity.
So this is what Loonyville looks like! Charming.
The format of the meeting was supposed to be set up so Board members could ask three questions of Ms. Rice, then defer to the next person in the queue. Several times throughout the meeting, Chair Miernicki pleaded with Board members to stay on track. “PLEAAAASE, just three questions! PLEAAAASE, could we just stick to asking three questions?” the chair repeated over and over with pained melodrama, but it was unreasonable not to expect alternative versions of events to be proffered, in order to create foundations for questions. The case essentially pits a half dozen people against one, which means six people conveniently have multiple “witnesses” to reinforce their version of events. Johnston’s sole Board ally, Member Welty—not himself a witness to the initial interaction between Art Johnston and Bill Gronseth or the DECC parking lot confrontation with Miernicki—ardently questioned the testimony of others.
He and Chair Miernicki tussled over whether he should be allowed to demonstrate an alternative scenario to the shove allegedly given to Gronseth by Johnston.
“You’re not doing that.”
“We will! We will go through this!”
“No, you won’t!”
“I’ll go through the [demonstration] myself!”
“You are not going to do that!”
Mr. Welty insisted. He jumped up from his Board seat and swooped dramatically out in front of the audience. The energy of the room started channeling towards chaos as he tried to solicit an audience volunteer. The Chair and his majority allies fidgeted, visibly nervous. Harala called out, “Point of order!” and asked Mr. Miernicki to recess the meeting, which he did. Several people started getting to their feet. Denfeld High principal Tonya Sconiers made a beeline for Welty and started doggedly shadowing him as he paced back and forth across the floor. No one had any idea what she was doing, but she clearly was not volunteering to help with his demonstration. When Welty touched her shoulder, to show her what he was trying to do, she snapped at him in a loud, growling voice, “Don’t touch me! DO NOT touch me!”
Secretary Thibault, red-faced, kept trying to shoo people off the carpeted part of the floor while the media milled about, aiming cameras. The cop, alarmed by all the disorder, hopped up from his cushy chair and called for backup. Three more officers burst into the room from a doorway behind one of the wing walls, as though they’d been waiting out in the hall. It was another discordant blending of opposites: Saturday Night Live and a Brownshirt assembly. (Sorry, Harry.) But humor won out in this round. I started chuckling, loud enough to turn heads.
Once things had settled back down to the room’s normal level of lunacy, Mr. Welty sheepishly admitted he’d seen “one too many courtroom dramas.” The point he was making got muddled in his theatrics, but it was relevant and worth consideration. Board member Annie Harala is claiming that she witnessed Superintendent Gronseth’s left shoulder move forward from a “shove” by Art Johnston. (Johnston is contending there was no such movement or shove). Welty was attempting to demonstrate that what Harala witnessed may have been merely a startled reaction, a flinch, caused by Johnston touching Gronseth’s shoulder to get his attention. (The two men had already had a tense encounter, and Welty contended that Gronseth, because of that encounter, may have been a bit more jumpy than he would normally have been.)
The Prince and the Ogre.
This meeting was a very frustrating two and a half hours for Art Johnston’s supporters. They were intimidated by the police presence, and the Board’s majority members denied them a chance to speak. Chair Miernicki’s blanket declaration that “there isn’t public comment at Special meetings” was inaccurate. I have personally spoken at both Committee of the Whole meetings and Special meetings in the past.
The whole thing had the feel of a set-up. The so-called “neutral investigator,” Mary Rice, was a slight woman with straight, graying hair. She kept leaning back in her chair and looking up at the Board with a cool, chippy attitude. She spent a fair amount of time defending all the hard work she’d done: “I accessed the district’s email, I reviewed district policies, I reviewed several Board meetings…” She fended off Welty and Johnston’s probing questions with snippy comments like “If you’d read my report” and a clipped, dismissive “I don’t know.”
No one asked the district’s counselor, Kevin Rupp, any hard questions about what we were getting into. Scant light was shed on the legal ramifications of the Byzantine path our wandering Board has decided to lead us down. The News Tribune reported that the legal hearing Johnston will request may happen early next month. Fat chance. Johnston has already voiced reservations about the judge the district has lined up for the hearing. And even after the hearing plays out, there’s such a thing as an appeal. We’re traipsing around on unusual legal ground, and this twisted path may yet wind all the way up to the state supreme court. Would Art Johnston go the distance? The Lone Ranger is one tough hombre, and I wouldn’t bet against him.
The root cause of this blood feud is Member Johnston’s disagreement with other Board members over district issues, especially accountability for the Red Plan. He has clashed repeatedly with Chair Miernicki and Clerk Seliga-Punyko. Mr. Johnston charges that these Board skirmishes led to on-the-job harassment of his significant other, who is a district employee. District administrators are enmeshed in the controversy, and many people put Superintendent Gronseth at the center of all the drama.
As I left the boardroom I spotted the superintendent retreating into the sanctuary of his office, surrounded by an entourage of admirers. One woman (with coifed hair, fancy coat, and high-heeled boots) cupped his elbow tenderly, as though comforting a proud and noble prince who’d just emerged from doing battle with a dangerous ogre.
Forgive me if my version of events varies from this glorious tale of good versus evil. The loony melodrama I observed in the boardroom I would describe as a kangaroo court, but doing so feels a bit too cruel to kangaroos.
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 School Board office.