Nepotism, contractors, more about a lawsuit

by Loren Martell

Photo credit: Ted Heinonen
Photo credit: Ted Heinonen

The school board discussed the shortcomings of a new policy during its February meeting.  The Board’s discussion gives me reason to report on something I’ve been reluctant to write about.  Despite getting into a bit of boardroom trouble years ago, for engaging in an alleged “personal attack,” I really hate the sordidness that can come from mucking about and questioning a public official’s “personal interest.”  Attacking someone personally, however, isn’t the same as calling out someone in a position of power for an action that undermines trust and hampers his/her ability to effectively represent the public’s interest.  

Over the years since my confrontation in the boardroom, I’ve asked many people to please make certain that we  the former Chair I once tangled with, and myself--don’t end up in the same nursing home someday.  I’d probably drive the home’s nursing staff crazy, constantly tailing him around the place in my walker, shouting: 

“Come back here, you old coot!  Don’t tell ME I can’t remind you of your promises!  These words are still on the record!” 

Nasty nepotism

The school board’s discussion, concerning policy 307: “Conflict of Interest and Fiduciary Duty,” centered around the policy’s efficacy in preventing nepotism.  A number of members referred to government nepotism as being a “prevalent” and “prominent” problem in our community.  
Our representatives seemed to be referring to a recent Duluth News Tribune article, which exposed the fact that St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin had considered “only one finalist for an open attorney position in his office”: his son, Tony Rubin.  The paper reported that “at least 10 current or former prosecutors applied for (a) recent opening in the criminal division” of the County Attorney’s Office in Duluth, and listed the impressive credentials of many of these job applicants.   

In comparison, Mr. Rubin’s 41-year-old son, the Trib further reported, had only four years of private practice experience and “no prior experience in criminal law.”  The paper pointed out “the serious ethical concerns,” raised by hiring a family member.  It quoted an ethics lawyer, who called the practice “a common problem…a nepotism issue.”

A discussion around nepotism has been due in our public school district for some time.  Let’s just say ISD 709 also has a pattern of familial hiring.  Until recently, the most prominent example was the Superintendent and his spouse. That couple, at the top of the power pyramid, was the most visible manifestation of our school district’s tendency to keep things in the family.  

Mr. Gronseth’s wife now works for a school district in the Rochester area, but there are still a lot of employee/spouses.  To name a few, just in administration: the spouse of the Director of Special Services works in the same department as her husband; the spouse of the Coordinator of Education Equity is employed as the Director of Indian Education; the spouse of the Lakewood Elementary Principal/Federal Programs Coordinator is the Spanish Immersion instructor at Lowell Elementary; the Director of Assessments, Performance and Evaluation is married to the district’s Climate Coordinator; the spouse of the Executive Assistant in the Special Ed. Dept is the Vocational Program Coordinator.  

I believe that list is current, (though likely not comprehensive,) and a few other hires as of late have raised some eyebrows.  The Duluth News Tribune also recently reported that 40-year-old Erik Lofald “became a rarity — a new football coach at Denfeld.”  Erik’s parents have both worked in the school for many years, his father as a special education paraprofessional, his mother as a teacher.  Erik’s mother now sits on the school board and still works in Denfeld as a substitute teacher and speech coach.  

Another hire that has gotten some recent attention involves Tom Cawcutt, reportedly a long-time, personal friend of the Gronseth family.  Mr. Cawcutt was hired as Principal of Homecroft Elementary school last year.  On 4/12/18, the Moose Lake Star Gazette reprinted a Facebook message from the Barnum Public Schools: “As many of you know, complaints made against Principal Tom Cawcutt have caused significant disruption and distraction at the (Barnum) Elementary school.”  The posting further stated that Mr. Cawcutt “was placed on paid leave,” and while a “thorough and comprehensive investigation” was being completed, he “offered to enter an agreement that included his resignation from employment with the school district.”  

Again, my intent is not to mud-rake or engage in personal accusation/attack or repeat any prejudicial rumors.  I’m just laying out the facts as accurately as I can from the record and suggesting that, at the minimum, maybe a bit more attention should be paid to the optics of insider favoritism and nepotism.  

Board members on the subject   

Member Sandstad (who works as an attorney for the county) raised the issue, first: “I’ve read through the policy, and it’s not clear to me it directly prohibits nepotism, and I’m wondering if I can get a clarification on that.”   
The “clarification” came from Tim Sworsky, the Human Resources Manager: “It (the policy) talks about conflicts of interest without using the term ‘nepotism’ — which is not, in the terminology way — prohibited.”  Sworsky’s next sentence changes point of view numerous times, making it difficult to follow: “What they’re saying is: in conflicts of interest, your personal interests may impact — I have a financial or personal interest, direct or indirect — which is incompatible with the proper discharge of his or her duties in the public’s interest.”  

Mr. Sworsky added another jumbled sentence: “That’s as close as you’re going to kind of see to that--” before continuing his explanation: “It (the policy) talks about blood or marriage relationships, domestic partnerships.  Essentially, the way I’m interpreting that is: you can have those relationships, (but) they can’t interfere with the personal interest.”

 I assumed he meant to say such relationships can’t interfere with “the PUBLIC’S interest,” but I’m just one of the motley ignoramuses that makes up the public. 
Member Sandstad responded that she’d “like to see a little more clarity in regard to making it obvious we’re prohibiting nepotism.”  She then made a motion to “definitely postpone (the second reading of the policy and the vote on it) to March.”
“Seeing that we are going to potentially postpone this for a second reading for a month,”  Member Oswald weighed in, “I would like some clarification on whether this policy will actually cover nepotism, or if we’re going to have to create a separate nepotism policy.  I think we have to be clear and definite on that.”  

Member Lofald was the only one of our representatives to object to a delay: “I want to challenge our Board, to say: we haven’t even had a conversation around this topic, and so — I don’t know if we delay the policy, or I think it’s a bigger conversation.  I think we can adopt this policy as it stands right now, and then, as a Board, decide where we’re going with any potential policy on nepotism…I know it (nepotism) is prevalent in our community, right now.” 

The other members present voiced support for a delay, including Business Committee Chair Trnka, who admitted she “hadn’t even thought about the ‘nepotism thing,’ but,”  she added, “given how prominent it is in our community right now, I think we owe it to learn lessons from those around us.”  
“I just want to clarify,” Member O. added, “I’m not saying we need to have a full discussion of nepotism right now, or even next month.  I would like to clarify if this policy is covering nepotism or not.  And, if it’s not, we have to come up with another nepotism policy.”  
“I agree with member Oswald that I think this policy might actually cover nepotism,” member Sandstad concurred, “but just not clearly enough.”
Thanks to the Duluth News Tribune, which proved it still has some journalistic chops, by securing documentation from the county and raising awareness.  Especially in a locale where so much of government is dominated by one political group, at times trending towards Tammany Hall, nepotism is a corrosive poison that should be on everyone’s radar.   

Hopefully, during a month’s delay, our school board can come up with some policy language that keeps any bias off the scale and ensures personnel decisions are made in a clean, transparent manner.    

Another good reason for delay 

A vote on policy 307 was also put off for a month because member Trnka felt its current “iteration” failed to hold “our contractors as accountable” as she wanted them to be.  Trnka pointed out that the policy language only included “one thing, that says the contractors have to go to the district’s website to review the policy.  And there’s no — we have so many contractors that we’re working with.  If you look at the expenditure sheets every month, I just really struggle with feeling like we don’t really have control over the conflicts of interest that we have with the myriad of contractors that we work with.”   

The school board for years has had very little control of any kind over the “myriad of contractors” that earn big money off our public school district.  The same companies and people keep getting hired over and over — not just by Duluth, but by all the districts in the state.  Consider this quote from the 4/12/17 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press: 

“St. Paul Public Schools is preparing for a substantial decline in enrollment, just two years after an unduly sunny projection report.  In January 2015, demographer Hazel Reinhardt predicted the district would gain about 2,200 students in the coming decade…Reinhardt now expects the district to lose about 2,200 students in the next 10 years in addition to the 1,000 St. Paul lost in the last two years.  The district should have around 33,000 students by 2026, Reinhardt told the board Tuesday. Her previous report projected about 38,200 by 2024.”

Reinhardt, who calamitously blew the Red Plan’s student enrollment projection — the root cause of ISD 709’s fiscal problems — missed the mark by over 5000 students in St. Paul.  The saddest part: Hazel could come back to Duluth next month and get hired again.  
Contractors swarming around school districts have profit lines protected by arrangements with entities with no profit line.  From my observation, their biggest conflict of interest is with the taxpayers.   

The A.J. lawsuit

A little over a year ago (12/4/17,) I wrote to the Dept. of Administration: “I currently have an information request date-stamped July 25th, 2017 by the school district’s Business Office, that has not been responded to.  I checked personally with the Director of Business Services on the status of the request on Sept. 15th, 2017, and was told it would be responded to within a reasonable time, but 75 more days have passed.  Another citizen--a former school board member and retired banker--submitted a request in March of 2017 and after months passed, he checked and was told the request had been lost.  He resubmitted his request in July of 2017, and also still has received no response.  Current school board member Johnston recently complained during a Board meeting that his properly submitted requests for information have been routinely ignored.”

I drove to Old Central on Sept. 15th, 2017, and requested a few moments with former CFO, Doug Hasler.  Standing in his office, where I could clearly see my information request lying dormant in the “IN” basket, on his desk, I said, “This is not following the law, Doug.  This is not reasonable.  There should be some protocol in place.  You shouldn’t be just ignoring data requests for months, without any response at all.  At the minimum, you should be routinely responding to citizens within a set time-frame, and letting them know where their requests are in the process.”

“That’s a reasonable point, Loren.”  Mr. Hasler agreed, and we shook hands on it.  Then Mr. H. let 75 more days go by with no response.  The district would probably still be dragging its feet — more than a year later, stonily silent — if the Dept. of Administration hadn’t finally called the Superintendent. 

The fact that district 709 has been willfully ignoring and (effectively) denying information requests is, well, undeniable.  In my last article, however, I overstated Art Johnston’s leverage in his lawsuit against ISD 709.  I found it very illuminating to learn about the loophole in the Minnesota’s Government Data Practices Act, laid out so ably in the Zenith News.  The correlation between punitive and actual damages is clearly a governmental catch-22.

Another major loophole that permeates our entire justice system revolves around that loaded “m” word: MONEY.  Without the backing of some deep-pocketed sponsor (the Minnesota Newspaper Association, for example, if you’re a small newspaper,) few can actually afford to fight a legal battle like this in District Court, then the Court of Appeals and then likely to the State, if not the Federal, Supreme Court.          

I have never coveted greenbacks as much as some for their consuming power, but many times, watching our school district operate, I’ve wished I was filthy rich — Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates — rich.  I’ve wished I possessed wealth in the billions, and all the power that wealth could wield in the system. 
Art Johnston has already spent more than most of us would.  He may have won the largest settlement ever awarded in the state under the legal remedies subdivision of Minnesota’s Government Data Practices Act, but he’s still in the hole.  Our democratic government, funded by our taxes, can be very tough to bring to heel in regard to its own laws, even with a big bankroll.  If the Lone Ranger’s last name was Bezos, however, I’m certain he would have cut big checks and gone the distance — and I, for one, wish he could have.  

In a 10/24/18 Civic Caucus interview, a government data expert reflected on the growing tendency for government entities to deny public information access with impunity:  “Part of the government response in the real world is that they know most people won’t sue, because they don’t have the money to sue or they’re Minnesota Nice.  It used to be that the pillars of enforcement were the media.  But with the changes in the media, they will sue sometimes, but not as often as they used to.  It rarely happens anymore.” 

I believe we’re entering into a new era of citizen journalism.  Even without the deep pockets of a billionaire, the intrepid Mr. Johnston blazed a pioneering trail into the legal jungle.  Hopefully, other citizens will follow and extend that trail.