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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.
Welty Weighs In
The Reader was able to reach Board member Harry Welty late Tuesday evening and get his thoughts on the issue.
Reader: What is your perspective on Johnston?
Welty: Art and I have not always gotten along. We only had a reapproachment about two months before the last election. We got together and decided maybe we should we should at least be cordial cause we might both serve on the school board. A lot happened to Art in the last four years I knew nothing about and I’m still discovering just how dramatic it’s been for him to be a lone voice on the school board.
Reader: Do you know anything about the alleged assault?
Welty: I was there. At the end of the graduation ceremonies Art went over to talk to the superintendent to just confirm that the Art’s wife was no longer going to be reassigned, and I looked up as the conversation began about 10 feet from me and I could tell that Art was not hearing what he had heard earlier that day because he was quite agitated. I didn’t hear anything, so he was not yelling, but he had a sort of forceful downward motions with his finger. He didn’t touch them. I know that if somebody attacked my spouse to get at me I would be furious, too. I think it is entirely understandable, but this apparently explains the charge of his having a conflict of interest
Reader: What do you think of the racist allegation?
Welty: I find that to be one of the most asinine allegations. There were a great many minority people… African-Americans at the meeting tonight cheering him on. They know that he is been fighting for them. We’ve seen Denfeld become a place for free and reduced lunch children predominately. The Red Plan was designed to re-segregate the schools and this has been a constant concern of Art’s and mine for five or six years. This whole process seems to be about throwing as much mud as possible against the side of the barn and seeing what sticks.
Reader: How much damage to Johnston’s reputation?
Welty: My guess is that the reputation of the School District will take a far bigger hit, because this has every appearance of a kangaroo court. Maybe that’s not entirely accurate… it’s going to be a kangaroo investigation of these allegations, leading to a kangaroo court. My guess is it will blow over when the people who are persecuting Art discover that nobody takes them very seriously. I can only hope that that is one of the results because I can think of a number of other things that could be better investigated.
Welty formerly wrote on school issues for The Reader, prior to his election to the Board.