Superintendent’s wife screens school board hopefuls

On August 8, 2017, seven candidates for the Duluth School Board—Josh Gorham, Art Johnston, Dana Krivogorsky, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, Loren Martell, Sally Trnka and Harry Welty—gathered at the offices of the Duluth Federation of Teachers for a question-and-answer screening session. The DFT holds such events every election year to endorse candidates; several of the candidates had participated in them before. The difference this year was that one of the screeners was Deanna Gronseth, spouse of Superintendent Bill Gronseth.

Let’s stop now and look at all the red flags that suddenly shot up, shall we? If the superintendent’s wife is screening school board candidates, her choices could result in a direct financial benefit to herself. The school board approves the superintendent’s salary. Suppose the wife likes candidates who will give her husband a fatter paycheck? Oh, wait—she does. The three incumbents in the group—Johnston, Loeffler-Kemp and Welty—voted on Bill Gronseth’s contract last June. Loeffler-Kemp voted for it. Welty and Johnston voted against it. Is it mere coincidence that Deanna Gronseth chose to endorse Loeffler-Kemp but not Welty or Johnston?

Let’s look past the financials. When Superintendent Gronseth accused Member Johnston of assault in 2014 (because he brushed him with his hand or something—don’t ask), the ensuing legal battle occupied and divided the city for months as the school district tried to kick Johnston off the board. The fiasco only ended when Johnston spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own money to file a countersuit against the school district in federal court, alleging that the district was attempting to use lawsuits to chill his vocal criticism of district policies. Eventually, a judge ruled in Johnston’s favor (“Gadflies make the best laws….Mr. Johnston has a right to speak out. I’m not going to stop that.”) and the school district dropped its case in defeat. Total cost to taxpayers: $43,000. Hooray!

To return to my point: Do you suppose Art Johnston had any chance at all of being endorsed by Deanna Gronseth?

Candidate Martell has never served on the school board, but he has closely followed the school district for years, delivering his observations in a regular column in the Reader (the column has been discontinued while Martell is a candidate). Martell has been a critic of Superintendent Gronseth for a long time. So did Deanna Gronseth endorse him? She didn’t. 

In the end, the screening committee declined to endorse any candidates who had ever been critical of Superintendent Gronseth.

Conflict of interest policy? What conflict of interest policy?

I have to admit I was surprised when I heard about Deanna Gronseth sitting on the screening panel. The conflict of interest was so blatant that it could hardly be overstated. On August 14, I drove up to the offices of the Duluth Federation of Teachers on Central Entrance and asked DFT President Bernadette “Bernie” Burnham about it.

“She’s a member,” said Burnham.

It is true that Deanna Gronseth is employed as a speech pathologist with the Duluth school district (she also serves as a school board member in Hermantown, believe it or not—the Gronseths are nuts for schools), but her DFT membership wasn’t the problem. The problem was that she was the wife of the superintendent. When I tried to explain this, Burnham just looked at me. “She’s a member,” she repeated.

I asked to see the DFT’s conflict of interest policy. “I don’t know that we have one,” said Burnham.

I was astonished. The Duluth Federation of Teachers is a nonprofit organization, and as such they are required to make certain documentation available for inspection by the public. In fact, on the DFT’s 2016 federal 990 form, which nonprofits are required to file with the IRS each year, the DFT states that they will provide their “governing documents, conflict of interest policy, and financial statements” to any member of the public “upon request.” That is the right thing to say on that line, and every nonprofit says it. But now that I had made a request, the president of the DFT seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. 

“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I don’t know where to get it at the moment….I’m gonna check with my field rep and see.”

As I left the building empty-handed, I reflected on the situation. It was frustrating to be stonewalled, but in a way things made more sense now. Violating policies would be easy if you had no idea what they were.

As of press time, a phone message left for Deanna Gronseth had not been returned.

MPCA fines levied, settled

Four times a year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency publishes a list of enforcement actions it has taken against various parties during the previous three months. In its latest report, the MPCA identifies two local businesses.

One is Mills Fleet Farm in Hermantown. According to Jim Dexter, MPCA contact person on the case, when a project in Minnesota is one acre in size or larger, they are required to obtain a construction stormwater permit from the state. “Essentially, the objective of the permit is to keep sediment out of surface waters and [on] their construction site, and in this case there were quite a few violations.”

One violation was that Fleet Farm hadn’t obtained the permit. More violations were related to them not carrying out the requirements of the permit. Dexter said that this enforcement action had been initiated by a complaint from a citizen. After reviewing the case, the MPCA fined Mills Fleet Farm $15,362 and Arnt Construction, the general contractor, $18,637 for stormwater violations. According to Dexter, the fines have been paid.

The second business to receive a fine was the Great Lakes Aquarium, which was cited for “industrial wastewater violations.” When I spoke with Craig Weingart, MPCA contact on the case, he stressed to me several times that there had been no environmentally harmful discharges from the aquarium. The violations, which were discovered during a routine inspection, were related to “record-keeping” and were “more administrative in nature, and associated with their operations, versus any sort of environmental harm.”

The aquarium was initially fined $2,487. Weingart told me that they had fixed the issue and that the MPCA had forgiven the fine. “No environmental harm as a result of the violations was identified,” he said again, perhaps envisioning apocalyptic headlines.

Mayor proposes Data Practices Coordinator

On August 14, Mayor Emily Larson presented her proposed 2018 budget to the city council. Overall, it seemed quite austere. Many of the mayor’s proposals involved paring and cutting positions—about 20 positions in all, spread across departments—but she did propose creating one new position: a Data Practices Coordinator. “It would be one person...who would be tasked with sorting through all the data practices requests we get,” she told the council. “That person would be housed within the city clerk’s office.”

I think this is a good idea. Currently when you make a data request it can get farmed out to several different branches of Duluth city government, depending on the nature of the request. Different people have different levels of skill and experience in completing data requests; few have been formally trained in it. Assigning a trained person to prioritize, route, track and fulfill requests would (hopefully) result in efficiencies simply as a result of that person’s added expertise. A good Data Practices Coordinator would be an expert on the Freedom of Information statutes, so there would be more saved time from people not having to engage in lengthy discussions trying to figure out the law, as happens now.

Like it or not—and some cities really don’t like it—governments are legally required to respond to data requests. These requests will only increase in the future. It’s not just journalists making them; market research firms file a lot of them, too. With email and digital files, the amount of requested information can be enormous. By accepting responsibility and facing data requests head-on instead of trying to avoid them, the Larson administration is showing its commitment to transparency and the law.