Interview with Art Johnston

Several charges were recently filed against controversial School Board member Art Johnston. Mr. Johnston agreed to talk about his interview with an attorney from Fafinsky, Mark and Johnson, the law firm hired by the Board to investigate the charges.

Reader: “You met with one of the attorney investigators last week?”

Art Johnston: “Yes.”

Reader: “Is any information from the interview confidential?”

Johnston: “Very little. Some information wasn’t shared with me. [The investigator] wouldn’t tell me who said some things, for example. Everything I told her, of course, is not confidential. I don’t hide anything at all. I want as much information to come out as possible.”

Reader: “It wasn’t like a deposition? You weren’t under oath?”

Johnston: “No.”

Reader: “Could you describe the process?”

Johnston: “The whole thing lasted about five hours. [The investigator] had statements from other people. She asked me my opinions. A lot of my discussion with her was my contention that they [the Board majority] were going after me because of my positions on the Board, like not voting to renew superintendent Gronseth’s contract. I’ve also expressed concerns about the way the Board operates—not putting items on the agenda, not allowing discussion of certain items, like change orders. I’ve also sought information, and supported others who have sought information, through data practices. I told [the investigator] that one way I thought they were going after me was by going after my spouse, Jane Bushey. We talked a lot about what happened with Jane.”

Reader: “I assume this discussion involves the conflict of interest charge?”

Johnston: “That charge, and the one that claims I abused my authority as a School Board member.”

Reader: “Did you learn or confirm anything about these charges?”

Johnston: “Well, again, I already knew these charges had to do with me going to support Jane during meetings that [East High] had, meetings where she was potentially going to file harassment charges. The investigator asked me if this was an unusual circumstance, me helping someone this way. I told her one thing I do as a Board member is go and support people who get caught up in the bureaucracy. I gave her a number of examples of other staff I’ve helped, parents, students. I didn’t consider what I did for Jane to basically be any different than what I’ve done for others. What I learned was that Jane’s boss, [assistant principal] Cheryl Lien, was accusing me of calling her a liar.”

Reader: “Did you call her a liar? If not, did you learn why she’s saying you did? And how does that claim relate to the conflict of interest?”

Johnston: “No, I didn’t call her a liar. Both complaints revolve around a May 12th meeting, attended by me, Jane, a union rep, Cheryl Lien, Harrison Dudley, and a few others. [Lien and the Board majority] are claiming some things I said raised a conflict of interest. Everyone in the room knew I was involved with Jane, but I pointed that out, and I said that I was a School Board member. I also learned it’s claimed I made statements about a conflict of interest, regarding Cheryl Lien’s husband in a lawsuit. That is not true. During the conversation, Jane and Cheryl Lien acknowledged that Lien’s husband was on the opposite side of lawsuit Jane was involved in. I didn’t bring it up, but did ask questions as part of an overview of the situation, once it came up. Lien started going through some accusations about Jane’s job performance taking care of her children. [Bushey is a LPN nurse who cares for special ed children.] She kept asking—kind of drilling—Jane. She had a whole stack of paper, three inches thick, and she kept pulling out sheet after sheet and drilling Jane about things that had already been refuted. Every one of the things she brought up was false. When this was all done, I said, ‘It appears you are saying Jane is not telling the truth.’ This comment is apparently Lien’s complaint that I called her a liar, and is the basis for the abuse of staff charge.”

Reader: “Just going down the list of other charges. You’ve been accused of violating the Board’s Code of Ethics, policy 8050. Did you learn what tenet of the policy you allegedly violated?”

Johnston: “No. The investigator never mentioned it.”

Reader: “Didn’t bring it up at all?”

Johnston: “No, because it’s nonsense. I didn’t violate the Code of Ethics. They just threw that in there because they thought it would somehow make everything look more legitimate. And anyway the Board majority pointing a finger about ethics is a joke. They’ve done so many things—breaking promises, turning off the mic, arresting people. You could make the case this investigation itself violates some kind of Code of Ethics.”

Reader: “The remaining charges are the most serious charges in the eyes of many people. The first I want to ask about are the assault charges alleged by Superintendent Bill Gronseth and Board chair Mike Miernicki. What did you learn or confirm about these charges during your interview?

Johnston: “I learned that both men are claiming I grabbed them by the shoulder and swung them around.”

Reader: “Did you?”

Johnston: “No, I didn’t. Those claims are both lies. We were in the DECC, after the East graduation ceremony. It was noisy. I just touched Gronseth on the shoulder, to get his attention. I have several witnesses to that. The incident with Miernicki happened outside. Noise wasn’t a factor, so I didn’t have to—and didn’t—touch him to get his attention. I told the investigator I just called out his name, which is the truth.”

Reader: “The whole thing was a dispute about what happened with your partner, Jane Bushey, at her job?”

Johnston: “Both men had assured me the situation would be resolved and Jane would be able to go back to her job. Both men reneged on their word.”

Reader: “The final charge is the claim that you made a racist comment about a staff member. What can you tell everyone about that charge, after your interview?”

Johnston: “The charge is alleged to have been made about Harrison Dudley, a member of the HR administrative staff. There are two comments that have a racist tone.”

Reader: “What are the comments?”

Johnston: “I won’t speak them, even in this context. I have too much respect for Harrison Dudley. Let the people making all the charges say them.”

Reader: “You didn’t make either comment?”

Johnston: “No, I didn’t.”

Reader: “Did you learn anything in the interview as to why these charges have been made against you?”

Johnston: “It happened at a party on June 6th. I actually did hear one of the comments; the other one I didn’t hear, and I haven’t found anyone else who heard it yet.”

Reader: “Who made the comment you heard?”

Johnston: “I told the investigator, because I had to tell the truth. But I don’t want to name names here and throw someone else under the bus. I will say I regret now not saying something at the time. I should have stood up and defended Harrison Dudley. It was a party, a fast-moving conversation, but no excuse. I will say I thought it was strange that the investigator didn’t seem to know anything about who was at the party. She knew everything about the incident at the DECC, the identity and location of every person present.”

Reader: “What’s the significance of that?”

Johnston: “It made me think that whoever reported the incident wasn’t present, like it was a third person removed. Whoever it was had a direct line to district administration. The party was on Friday; by Monday, the 9th, the racist charge had been added to the list right before it went public. It was like, they caught wind of it, and thought: ‘Might just as well toss this in, too, and see if it sticks.’ It is not a coincidence that the lies are designed to make both Harrison and I look bad. But administration overestimated the gullibility of the public because few people, if any, believe these phony charges.”
Reader: Harrison Dudley, and his wife, Leisa, espoused staunch support for you in a recent Reader interview. Did you read that interview and do you have a comment?”
Johnston: “Harrison and his family are friends of Jane and I. We share political views, views on education and what’s wrong with the Duluth schools. We even have common interests, like boating. Harrison and Leisa’s comments were very touching, particularly since his supervisors intensely dislike me, and because he put the truth before what his supervisors wanted. That shows strength and very high morals. Harrison has shown these traits ever since I’ve met him as a HR manager. He always does what is right and stands up for what is right. I’ll stand with him, and the rest of this community, to make our school district better.”

Reader: “Any ending comments?”

Johnston: “This is all classic nasty politics, done by school administration: reputational lynching of those who aren’t in lock-step with them, sowing seeds of distrust among allies and friends. It won’t work. These tactics by the superintendent and five school board members are really despicable. What they’ve done against my spouse, Mr. Dudley, and me should be grounds for all of them to resign.”