Pretty Extreme

A sizeable crowd showed up at the Old Central Administration building at 4:30 p.m. on December 2. The occasion was a Special school board meeting, called to allow the Board’s majority to begin the process of ousting member Art Johnston. A couple of people in attendance were fourth district citizens who lost in the last school board election. But who knows? Opportunity knocks. Sometimes life throws some funny twists and turns our way. If the Lone Ranger is forced to ride off into the sunset, there will be a vacant seat in the clubhouse of power. According to Chair Miernicki, the Board’s majority members can bestow that vacated throne to anyone they choose. Elections aren’t the only way for an ambitious climber to get into office and become a “representative” of the people in this town.

For the record, Art Johnston won his seat the old fashioned way. He went out, worked his butt off, and was reelected by a decisive margin of more than eight percentage points. The Duluth News Tribune ran a pertinent quote from an attorney with expertise in this area of the law: “Board members are elected by the public and it would have to be a pretty extreme situation to take action to basically take the public’s decision out of their hands.”

The law being applied in the Art Johnston case is MN Statute 123B.09. This statute states that a school board can remove one of its members with a simple majority vote “for proper cause.”
“A pretty extreme situation” and “a proper cause” are both extremely vague and pretty subjective. I think that’s a proper description.

All our fears are reasonable.
On the evening of Dec. 2, the citizens of Duluth climbed onto a train with our school board and headed off on a wild ride to God knows where. The school board based its action on a report by an attorney “investigator,” a report that has a distinctly creepy feel. The document feels like it was ferreted out of the dusty files of the East German Stasi police—a compilation of “facts” and “findings” produced from a shadowy network of neighbors spying on neighbors and ratting them out.

The law firm hired to conduct the investigation, Fafinski, Mark & Johnson, was recommended by the district’s chief counselor, Kevin Rupp. Art Johnston has questioned the impartiality of the firm from the beginning. The attorney who interviewed witnesses, reviewed documentation, and compiled a report of “findings” was named Mary Rice. Ms. Rice used the word “reasonable” throughout her report. It is reasonable to examine the reasonableness of what she calls reasonable.

The most serious of all the charges the school board’s majority and the superintendent have leveled at Art Johnston is assault. Obviously assault, true assault, is a criminal act. The substantiality of this charge is undermined, however, by the fact that neither of the alleged victims—Superintendent Gronseth and School Board chairman Miernicki—called the police. Anyone believing he or she has been assaulted would usually dial 911 and have the police make an arrest and begin a real investigation.

The investigation conducted by Fafinski, Mark & Johnson did not produce any evidence admissible in a court of law. The testimony given from witnesses was not taken under oath, and much of the compilation of fact is hearsay. Art Johnston claims that because none of the testimony is under oath, and is just being repeated secondhand from an attorney, all of the report is nothing but hearsay.
The only witness to the alleged assault on Chair Miernicki was one the chair’s best friends, board member Bill Westholm, someone he’s known for 50 years. There are some peculiar gaps of credibility in Westholm’s statements, particularly his claim that Johnston was yelling angrily at Miernicki but he, Westholm, only a few yards away, heard nothing.
The most compelling testimony of the alleged assault against Gronseth was given in an interview with board member Annie Harala. The attorney found that Ms. Harala’s testimony was both credible and reasonable. The following is an enhanced edition of what was written in the report:
“[Harala] watched Art Johnston very briskly walk up to [Gronseth] from behind, and shove his left shoulder pretty hard. Harala watched Gronseth’s shoulder move forward to the point that his body physically moved forward with force. It was a significant shove. [Thankfully] Gronseth is a sturdier [man’s] man; had it been someone else [some puny little wuss], he would have moved a lot farther [and collapsed in pain]. [Gronseth’s] shoulder to hip lurched forward. [Actually, though] he may have [just] stepped forward [instead of lurching forward]; [Harala’s] not [quite] sure. [But, she’s absolutely sure] it was a shove… Harala was really surprised… It was very shocking to see. She’s seen Johnston frustrated about things in the past with their experience [as a crappy, dysfunctional] Board, but hadn’t seen him moved to [such] physical violence. To Harala, it was [an extremely] violent act. She was afraid [for her life]… Harala was afraid for both hers [and board member Loeffler-Kemp’s] safety, afraid [the crazed and rampaging Johnston] would make more of a scene. Harala was in shock! [Actual SHOCK!] After she realized what had happened, she became a lot more physically afraid. [Really, REALLY scared, and she couldn’t spot her mom anywhere!] Johnston had never come after Harala personally in the past [thank goodness!]… but there was a very unstable look [a look we’ve all seen in maniacal killer movies] in his eye, and Harala had a lot of fear!”
Harala reported to the secretary/attorney taking dictation that “‘it was very shocking to watch our employee be shoved.” She felt that if she hadn’t stood up, they’d be saying it’s ok for this to happen to the students of the district (for Johnston to go into the schools and start shoving around all the little kids!). Harala fears that if Johnston doesn’t get his way, he’ll continue to do this. She’s concerned that if this happens with that, what happens with a vote he doesn’t like? (My God, will the maniac come into the boardroom and start clubbing all the other board members with a hockey stick?)
On page 15 of the report, Rice writes that Gronseth himself said, “Johnston didn’t shove him, or ‘maybe he gave me a little shove.’” In her “findings,” Rice concludes that “it is most likely that Johnston gave Gronseth a small, but angry shove… and that “Gronseth (at that moment) braced himself, reasonably fearing that Johnston was going to hit him.”

First of all, the word “likely” supposedly fell out of use in jurisprudence some time ago, along with lynch mobs.

“We all think it’s most likely Smith murdered all of dem der folk. Yeah! Likely did, the bum. None of us ever cottoned to him anyway, and we’re pretty darn sure of it! Where’s some rope and a tree!”

Secondly, was it really reasonable for the superintendent to fear Art Johnston was going to hit him?
Really? It was reasonable to fear that Art Johnston—a respected, educated citizen, a retired engineer and five-year member of the school board, someone civic-minded enough to be a Denfeld High music booster and log several hours reading to second graders at Laura MacArthur Elementary school, someone who is a volunteer driver for Meals on Wheels and a donor to both Woodland Hills Academy for troubled youth and First Witness, an organization dedicated to preventing child abuse, someone who has a Coast Guard pilot’s license and teaches adult education courses in celestial navigation, someone who is a member of the NAACP and a member of the district seven DFL Executive Board, someone who has passed the very stringent background check for security clearance for a TWIC card (established after 9/11) for someone entering a site of potential terrorism (the Duluth harbor, as a Coast Guard pilot, for example) and also recently passed another rigorous background check through an application process as a foster parent, someone with a resume few others in this town can match—was going to walk up to the superintendent of public schools in the DECC arena and in front of hundreds of witnesses CLOBBER him? Really? This fear was REASONABLE? Maybe for occupants of cots in paranoia wards.
Anyone harboring a serious fear that Art Johnston is going to HIT him or her in public (or behind some bushes in the park) should be offered a padded room for his or her own protection.
Ms. Harala hopefully has recovered from her highly traumatic experience and is again sleeping peacefully, with the light on and her teddy bear close. Hopefully she isn’t suffering any scary dreams about that fanged boogeyman Johnston jumping out from under her bed. What a bunch of overblown nonsense.

The non-racist, nonexistent remark.
The most poisonous charge leveled against Mr. Johnston by the five infallible plus one is that he made a racist comment about a staff member. The attorney investigator found that the remark was not even racist. She was unable to determine who made the remark or if it was even spoken. The remark was alleged to have been made on a deck of a private home on a Friday evening. By the following Monday, the majority members of the Board added racism to a list of charges they’d already compiled against Art Johnston and tossed the whole list out into the community. No one bothered to corroborate what was clearly hearsay. No one bothered to talk to Harrison Dudley, the individual the remark was supposedly directed at, a district administrator. No one seemed to give a thought about smearing the reputation of a sitting school board member with such a wicked, unsubstantiated charge.
To add a dash of irony, Johnston is very popular with many in the African-American community. (Harrison Dudley’s family worked for his reelection campaign.) He is the last person on the Board who would make a racist remark. Anyone who knows him knows that. The racism charge was nothing but more mud thrown against the wall to see what would stick. The reckless viciousness of the charge is staggering and should at least raise the question of who really deserves to be thrown off the Board.
Unable to substantiate the racism charge, the snooping “investigator” found that Johnston “may have been publicly criticizing Gronseth’s performance as superintendent” at the party. After reading this line, I looked out my window to see if anyone along my block was flying the stars and stripes. Has Duluth seceded from the union? Are we now repressively ruled by Independent School District/Nation 709? If it’s out of bounds for a school board member to criticize the superintendent of schools, how about the rest of us who “may have” bitched about someone we work with, while drinking a beer with friends on a Friday evening? Start prosecuting that heinous crime, and we’d better start building more prisons. As far as “publicly criticizing” goes, Johnston was on private property. Be sure to check the sky for drones next time you find yourself sitting on someone’s deck in Duluth. The superintendent of public schools may be hunting for anyone criticizing him.
This part of the report is heavily redacted, but there appear to be three layers of hearsay. A snitch from the party contacted someone (seemingly a district employee) who phoned superintendent Gronseth, who passed the juicy bits of slanderous gossip on to a riled-up mob, looking for a rope. From the onset, Mr. Gronseth has been intricately involved in this nutty school board melodrama. It was reported in the Reader last June that the superintendent actively colluded with staff before the last election to get rid of Johnston.
Code of Ethics.
The attorney investigator found there was no foundation to find fault with Johnston under Board policy 8045, Conflict of Interest, because the policy applies only to financial conflicts. She did however refer often to a more general phrase that school board members should “avoid being placed in any conflict of interest,” from policy 8050, the Board’s Code of Ethics. The 65 page report is riddled with findings that Johnston’s actions put him in violation of this clause. In fact, nearly every disagreement Johnston’s had with administration and the majority members of the Board was compiled in the report as a conflict of interest.
The five infallible should study tenet 2 of their Code of Ethics. They walked into the Dec. 2nd meeting with their votes pre-decided, before having a full, public discussion (which would include letting citizens speak), a clear violation of their sacred Code.
The Johnston report is a lot of smoking charges and recrimination, with little fire. Art Johnston was understandably upset about what he saw as harassment of his soul mate, because of a political vendetta. Whatever feathers were ruffled could (and still should) be settled with an apology and handshake. Beneath the surface of all this gossipy innuendo there is no “proper cause” to annul an election.
It takes something pretty extreme to remove a Board member…or a pretty extreme Board.