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(These are observations from one of the few people permitted to read the full, unredacted investigative report on the six charges leveled against Duluth School Board member Art Johnston.)
So I just read the Trib’s brief announcement that the Duluth School District’s report on Art Johnston has been completed. Big whoop! It’s still under wraps, and for peace and comity’s sake it should remain buried like the stinking fish it is. For half a year this has stunk up the School Board, and all that this 65-page document manages to demonstrate is that there is no there, there.
If is made public it will be redacted like hell. Our folks are redaction happy. Even Mary Rice told Art she was surprised how much the secret emails she got from the district had been redacted. I’ve already been sent the warning that her report contains personnel issues that, if made public, could subject the District to up to a $15,000 penalty, should the people exposed hire a lawyer for having their privacy invaded. Frankly, this protection is better suited to a cover-up than transparency.
In this case it’s protecting folks who deserve little sympathy. Furthermore, a $15,000 penalty is small potatoes compared to the cost of writing this cussed report.
I can offer some insights on the substance of the report with little fear that the redactors can accuse me of violating the law.
1. The report attempts to hide, without success, the bleeding obvious. The really big accusation of “assault” has always been overblown and unwarranted. You won’t find Mary Rice concluding this. She reads more like an accountant doing an audit. One person saw the superintendent react as though jerking forward abruptly when he was touched on the shoulder from behind by an angry Art Johnston. The superintendent denies himself that he was about to fall over. Mary Rice, however, impressively suggests that if Art had touched some frailer person, like an octogenarian on crutches, the force of his touch might have knocked the poor blighter over. Well, yes, and it’s been suggested that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can start a hurricane somewhere else on Earth. Sorry to be all H. L. Menken, but that’s simply nonsense. Mary Rice makes much of the fear this “shove” induced in all the School Board interviewees.
There is also the matter of a similar grabbing touch where the School Board chair was concerned. For the sake of comity I’m reluctant to fully express and explain my great skepticism about this second overblown allegation. There are only three recorded witnesses, and I serve on the Board with all of them. Yet I must say something. Attorney Rice puffs some of the testimony against Art Johnston by explaining that her interviewees had no reason to be untruthful. No, of course not. BFFs would never shade the truth when talking about each other, even if they couldn’t hear what was going on.
2. Left without its signature accusation, Mary Rice goes on to the issue of a “conflict of interest.” She makes it plain that this is a personal conflict of interest, not a “pecuniary” conflict of interest. I’m not sure Rice is right about this. That may depend on whether Jane Bushey is Art’s spouse under the law even if they aren’t married. If she was terminated after Art’s removal from the Board, there sure as hell would be a pecuniary (financial) issue. Jane, otherwise known as “that woman” (as described by the District’s HR director) is currently being paid while she is being held in cold storage elsewhere in the District.
Frankly, Rice manages to leave a huge void in her report where the chief accuser of Jane Bushey is concerned. It’s the person most likely to demand that fifteen-thousand-buck penalty for violating her data privacy. The offenses will, of necessity, be redacted out, although to her credit Rice does allude to them without going into the nausea-inducing details.
It remains to be seen whether I will be willing to withhold my knowledge of these events myself. Half the town already knows about them in some fashion.
Rice has put in one little footnote regarding me on this point of my speaking publicly. Rice explains that I already broke this data privacy back in July when I wrote to the Board about the danger of relying on a liar’s testimony. She may be right. I told the School Board enough for them to deduce who was responsible for harassing Art and Jane without my going into the juiciest of details. If telling current School Board members and the superintendent what I knew as a past Board member
is a violation of the data privacy act, so be it. I’ll likely as not tell the whole city sooner or later rather than have the whole town search for Denfeld friends to ferret out the much-rumored details.
By covering up the seedy past of the instigator of Jane Bushey’s harassment, Rice has done a disservice to the whole truth asked of witnesses in court. Ah, but then, this investigation has not been judicially sanctioned, so no one who was interviewed can be accused of perjury, only of lying.
3. In the absence of any legitimate and serious reason to remove Art, Mary Rice spends a lot of time pointing out breaches of School Board etiquette otherwise known as policy.
Ms. Rice watched a lot of School Board videos. She reports a litany of instances in which Art speaks critically of the School Board. Heavens to Betsy! I hope she hasn’t been reading my blog.
Oh, and about those policies. All through the Red Plan, the School Board ignored and violated its policies wholesale. Supt. Dixon didn’t even give his Board members a policy book, and there seems to have been a great forgetting that policies were of any consequence at all. As a former Board member, I was appalled that policies were of such little importance. Only statutory law is enforced with any vigor, and then only when the powers that be can be bothered to do so. Witness our recent non-audit of the District by the soon-to-be-re-elected State Auditor Otto.
She did not do what the petition she was given required her office to do. As for School Board policies requiring bidding on large projects, those are just empty words. Except for the ones suggesting that Art can’t speak his mind about the School Board. Those words are a big deal.
4. This isn’t just a “he said, she said” dispute. This is more like the gothic Japanese tale Rashomon, in which a dozen witnesses all report seeing something entirely different at the commission of a dreadful crime. Even when they witnessed something, they couldn’t generally hear what was going on. Nonetheless, Rice makes a tortured assertion that there is little reason to believe the folks pointing fingers at Art for one crime or another have any reason to be untruthful. Sheesh!
5. The most galling example for me of one of these instances has to do with the charge of racism, which, even if true, would only be embarrassing and not a justification for removal from office. I knew within a week what the terrible statement attributed to Art was, who said it, and the context. After five months, 36 witnesses, and God knows how many tens of thousands of dollars, Mary Rice never seems to have encountered this simple truth. As a consequence of her failure, she leaves the charge that Art made racist statements hanging in the air like that stinking fish. Her conclusion is that maybe Art did say them. Shame on her.
Frankly, this whole sorry pie-throwing exhibition began like the story of Chicken Little.
“So Foxy Loxy led Chicken Little, Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey, and Turkey Lurkey across a field and through the woods. He led them straight to his den, and they never saw the king to tell him that the sky is falling.”
However, the Duluth School Board’s story begins with someone seeing the superintendent being “shoved.” It remains to be seen whether the sky will fall.
Harry Welty is a former writer for the Duluth Reader and currently sits
as an at-large member of the Duluth School Board. These comments have
been modified from a recent post on his blog, lincolndemocrat.com.