The Calm Before the Storm

The people in control of the Duluth public school system told us the half-billion-dollar Red Plan would be half free, because of all the money we’d SAVE. They told us the buildings the plan abandoned would sell like hot cocoa on the lake walk in December. They told us parents would be just itching to send their kids to the shiny new schools. They told us so many whoppers that I don’t have the space to write them all down. Now they’re telling us all the problems in the boardroom are due to that irascible meany Art Johnston.
The cover of the June 12, 2014 Reader clearly displays the person most openly antagonistic towards the Board’s Lone Ranger. The scene stealer is Board chair Mike Miernicki, pointing a finger quite expressively. The right index finger of our righteous chair has wagged often in the boardroom, as he’s busied himself adding his own addendum to Robert’s Rules. There’ve been mutterings that some of the chair’s rulings are based on an archival Soviet apparatchik template recently uncovered in Siberia. In his loud, raspy voice, the chair has declared no debate would be allowed, even after a motion had been made and seconded. He’s ruled that a vote on amending the agenda would be held without any discussion of the item being added. He’s made a motion to amend the agenda, then immediately called the question to end debate himself, before any debate ensued. He’s refused to hold a Board vote on appeals of his decisions.
The chair also brusquely wielded power by shutting down a meeting while a member’s light was on, then threw around charges of lying when it was reported. He let a high-ranking district administrator loudly ridicule the marital status of a Board member. He and his allies launched an investigation of dubious merit against that same Board member, an investigation in part based on an assault charge leveled by the chair himself, a charge unlikely to ever be fully proved. During the reign of Miernicki, the number of Board members required to call a special meeting was raised from two to three, and minority members, groveling to get items on the agenda, have had their hands slapped away time and again, like beggars reaching for a few crumbs from an hors d’oeuvre tray…
Regrettable as it is to report, Mr. Miernicki will only preside over two more meetings. The first will be a special meeting, scheduled in the boardroom at 4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 2. The meeting, called to address the faux-legal investigation of Art Johnston (testimony not given under oath; no legal charges filed), is likely to be pretty stormy. Board members were warned not to reveal any specifics of the report, but rumors have been flying. I’ve requested a redacted copy of the report from administration, but so far, as usual, have received no response. The investigation dragged on twice as long as the public was told it would, and tensions have been ratcheting higher and higher in the boardroom for months. Citizens are allowed to speak at special meetings, but the chair has already announced he will quash that right, as he and his majority allies have done in the past.
Challenged once again on questionable procedural rulings, Chair Miernicki will likely huff and puff and roll his eyes, his ruddy face red as an apple. Look for him to try to limit questions to the attorney who conducted the investigation, the same way he limited questions to the state auditor staff. There is no indication yet when the Board will render its decision on the fate of their colleague, Mr. Johnston, but a culmination of sorts seems to be setting up for December 16th, the last regular meeting of the year. This will be the final official time our elevated comrade will be in command, and events appear to be aligned for a very raucous ending to a tumultuous reign.
Slouching towards Armageddon: School Board meeting, 11/18/14.
The air in Old Central had that heavy, just-before-a-storm feel. The first citizen to approach the public podium did manage, however, to extract a ray of sunshine from the soupy murk. Head of the clerical union, she was visibly ecstatic over a new district employee reclassification. Under the new system, pay is being bumped up for a number of people who do ISD 709’s massive amounts of clerical work. I’ve never seen a happier person speak in all the years (a number too disturbing to think about) that I’ve been attending meetings.
This radiant citizen, Terry Dzuck, shared some emails with the Board from her grateful colleagues: “Thank you, thank you, thank you (oh great and gracious dispensers of the taxpayers’ largess)! I am overwhelmed and blessed beyond words!!… Very gratifying! My goodness, this is great! WOW!! What wonderful news!… This is something we’ve hoped for, for many years! WOW!!!!…”
I don’t know where the Board came up with the money for the raise, but obviously it would do wonders for public relations if they could just pay everybody off.
The next two speakers were a bit less sunshiny. The atmosphere turned thick again, and the words of these citizens were like warning flickers of lightning through the windows. One said, “At the last regular school board meeting, Member Johnston was interrupted by a district employee, who started shouting at him about his marital status and said a lot of other mean-spirited things, which was extremely rude. He ended his comments by calling Art Johnston’s partner ‘that woman.’ That woman is Jane Bushey, and she’s a valued district employee. All of this started June 10th, when allegations were made public against Member Johnston. There were at least 50 people in the audience that night, and none of us were allowed to speak… I think it’s time for this witch hunt to end.”
Another came bearing quotes from the Bible: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” she read to us, suggesting some “lying” had gone on in the boardroom. She went on to say that in regard to “this business about Art Johnston, I understand the 62-page report did not reveal anything that he did, allegedly, [such as] assaulting Mr. Gronseth or Mr. Miernicki at a Duluth East High graduation ceremony. And I’d like to know why the police weren’t called… When you have an [alleged] assault, you should call the police.” She also scolded the HR manager, Tim Sworsky, for his abrasive comments about Art Johnston’s marital status, concluding with “This Board is despicable. Not one person stood up for Art Johnston.”

 We’re not gonna have it!
After these disgruntled citizens had returned to their seats, Education Committee chair Annie Harala tried her best to bring back the sun. Cheerily ignoring all negativity, as always, Ms. Harala dove into her education report. Some highlights of the report: (1) A presentation on the new Minnesota Arts Standards, which Member Johnston praised as “excellent.” (2) A wistful Board discussion about restoring seventh hour in the middle and high schools, followed by a scout’s honor promise from the superintendent to look for a way to achieve this goal in the next budget cycle (Vegas odds are a thousand to one). (3) A first reading of a revision to the policy 5040—Transfers Within the School District. This change is meant to help ease overcrowding already occurring in some of the elementary schools because of the Red Plan’s shoddy demographic projections.
The Education Report was approved unanimously, and we moved on to the HR Committee Report. Chair Welty made quick work of the report, and Board members picked out a few items for further discussion. Then Art Johnston started reading a statement that sent a restless stir through the room. The News Tribune reported that Johnston was “ultimately allowed to read the entire statement.” What the paper didn’t report was that Chair Miernicki contested Johnston. The chair competed for the floor, repeating over and over that he was ruling the statement “out of order,” etc. It was another weird episode of boardroom dysfunction. Both men continued to speak simultaneously, emitting deep vocal tones. It was sort of like listening to two baritones sumo wrestling with their voices.
Neither man could pin the other, or whatever it is that sumo wrestlers do. The net result was exactly what the chair intended: a large portion of the statement came across as rumblings and grumblings, barely decipherable to the audience. Johnston made the same statement during the HR Committee meeting a week prior, however, and the beauty of writing is that you can filter out the background noise:
“At the regular board meeting on October 21st,” Mr. Johnston said, “the superintendent’s human resources director publicly insulted and ridiculed my partner, my spouse, and the person that I deeply love. I think that these statements show personal malice and some latent prejudice against the person I love and have made a life with. In addition to being unprofessional, these statements… willfully and intentionally disclosed private personnel data, and are likely a violation of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act… I have asked the superintendent for an apology for the behavior of his employee… I find it very difficult to sit in this meeting with someone who has expressed disdain, ridicule, and prejudice towards Jane. I am in protest for the neglect of the superintendent to take any action to curb such base behavior by his employee.”
Mr. Miernicki, annoyed, called for a vote on the HR report. Johnston rapped on the dais.

“I asked for discussion of 3A and 3B.”

“Go ahead and ask. We’re not gonna have it! We’ve already had our vote…”

“I asked for discussion of 3A and 3B. You’ve said we were going to have it.”
“I thought you were done. You were out of order. You weren’t discussing 3A or 3B.”

“I made a statement of protest…”

“Now we go back to the same thing--.”

“I’ll be making that statement of protest every time I am sitting in a room with Mr. Sworsky.”

“Do you want to discuss 3A and 3B?”

“Yes, I do.”

3A involved district employee contracts. Member Johnston pointed out that only one of the 11 collective bargaining units had reached an agreement approved by the Board. He said the public had been told that the meeting for the teacher’s contract had to be hurried along (held off-camera in a Special meeting) so other contracts would not be delayed, and yet “the other ten are still outstanding…they’re seventeen months past when they expired.”
3B led into another discussion about the best way to approach making revisions to the way the Superintendent is evaluated by the Board. Member Welty said the aim of the whole process was to ensure, “Boards can wisely and competently evaluate Superintendents into the future.”
It was nice to hear this Board intended to leave something to future Boards, besides a bunch of pissed-off people and a huge pile of debt.
 Where do lawyers fit in?
Member Johnston put the vendor check list under scrutiny during discussion of the Business Committee Report.

“I noticed we have a $22,000 bill from Kevin Rupp [the district’s chief attorney]. I hope it has nothing to do with the Board and the superintendent coming after me, but I suspect it has something to do with it… We’ve had about $88,000 in legal bills this year. It’s very important for us as a Board to look at what these bills are for…”

Board clerk Seliga-Punyko weighed in:
“…it sounds like Member Johnston wants us to hire a full-time [contingent] of staff who are lawyers. I do know the city employs full-time, with benefits, over 10 lawyers; the county like a hundred.”

(The city employs 11 attorneys, but Seliga-Punyko was not even close with the county. According to St. Louis County’s HR department, there are 34 full-time and one part-time county attorneys.)
Member Johnston regained the floor and responded,

“No, I’m not asking that we hire lawyers. In fact, just the opposite. We have no need for lawyers… no need for these expenses.”

The Board discussed other business items as well, such as substantial vandal damage done on properties sitting vacant from the Red Plan. The underlying mood in the room, however, was dominated by the smothering of sunlight. The subtext of nearly every conversation was the coming storm. At one point Member Johnston and Superintendent Gronseth both candidly admitted they’d grown “uncomfortable” in each other’s presence. I’d rather predict Vladimir Putin’s next move than guess what the school board might do, but the air is thick, very sticky, and the clouds are definitely darker. Lightning flashes are growing brighter and more frequent.

Be prepared to bring in the pets.