Category Archives: Art J’s Martyrdom

Thou Shalt Not Rat Out Our Friends“ Part 4

This series of posts begins here:

Twelve years sped by, a couple of superintendents came and went, a half billion school building plan became reality, and a succession of heavily pro Red Plan school board majorities were elected to run roughshod over the pro referendum minorities. Superintendents catering to the majority cultivated subordinates who in some cases disdained the Red Plan’s naysayers. There was an attempt to remove the first naysayer, Gary Glass, but Dr. Keith Dixon who probably brought news of this possibility seems to have thought better of this divisive ploy. Glass is joined for his last two years on the Board by Art Johnston but both remain eunuchs by a five to two vote ratio. Then Art Johnston must forge on for the next two years as alone as Gary Glass had been in his first two years.

As Art faces reelection he becomes the subject of numerous letters-to-the-editor reviling him for not being a good sport when he is constantly denied the data he requests about the Red Plan. Before the filings take place one of the administration’s most ardent loyalists, Cheryl Lien, draws a bead on him.

Cheryl, (the subject of the original Post 2 in this series – since removed) has never been shrinking violet. One former Denfeld student told me that when she swept down the hallways kids stepped aside. One of her fans at East told me two things about Mrs. Lien. First, that she displayed great compassion for students in need. Lien had taken him under her wing when his family life fell apart and helped him get through it. But second, he conceded that she was driven and could be ruthless. Those aren’t his exact words but I think they are close enough.

Art believes that some of our administrators were urged to keep their distance from him. One administrator who told him she was advised to avoid him also told Art the following story as the 2013 campaign drew to a close.

In about May, preceding the candidate filings, the principals union held a gathering at Valentini’s Restaurant and invited Superintendent Gronseth to be their guest. According to Leea Powers, who I found to be calm, rationale and very smart, the Superintendent asked his principals who would find someone to run against Art Johnston.

“I’ve got It covered.” Cheryl Lien volunteered. She had found a young candidate with the magical last name of Minnesota’s longest serving Governor Perpich who would run against Art. If this took place as described it is stunning. I’ve written before about how Duluth Administrators handled school board elections. It wasn’t generally encouraged.

Administrators, especially the Board appointed Superintendent, put their careers on the line when they interfere in school board politics. There is no doubt that exchange like this took place because it was confirmed by Cheryl Lien’s own supervisor, Laurie Knapp, East High School’s long time principal.

Investigator Mary Rice, who interviewed all the principals at this meeting, chose to take a different interpretation than the one offered by Leea Powers, whom Rice characterized as being a “disgruntled” employee. Rice’s preferred interpretation of this event is that Lien’s comment was made in jest. If so, the levity was missed by Leea Powers who had already been told that Art Johnston was persona non grata as far as the Superintendent was concerned.

If Cheryl Lien was joking at the beginning of the election season she wasn’t joking by its conclusion. Many School Board watchers, including me, thought that Art Johnston was toast. He had been assaulted with several bitter letters to the editor accusing him of poor behavior during school board meetings. He had a strong opponent backed by many administration supporters in the PTA. It was, however, a different challenger facing Art than the one Mrs. Lien had taken credit for finding at her union meeting.

Cheryl Lien insisted that it was merely a coincidence that she chose Election Day, 2013, to warn Art Johnston’s partner, Jane Bushey, that she would be keeping a close watch over her in the coming year. Coincidence or not, Jane Bushey took the dreadful message to heart. She began keeping a diary of her interactions with Assistant Principal Lien and kept them up to date until the fateful East High graduation at the conclusion of the school year.

Next: Thou Shalt Not – Part 5

Thou Shalt Not Rat Out Our Friends – Part 3

Notwithstanding Art’s request that I take down that post about old news I’ve decided that this is a story that needs to be told to clear the air and erase wrong-headed preconceptions about Art Johnston. After all, I’m in this too. If I’m protecting a raving lunitic my judgement must be called into question. So, for now, consider that I am primarily defending my steadfast support for Art Johnston.

To that end there is one paragraph from the last post that I will bring back to life as it deals squarely with the main contention of this series of posts. That contention? There was a concerted effort by a great many people to bend the truth to portray Art Johnston as a man who should be removed from office. This idea will not die as long as folks like Annie Harala, the only witness to the complete “assault,” continue to maintain that there sure as heck was an assault and if only the public knew what she knew they too would want Art Johnston removed from the Board.

Well, before my readers join Annie at the hips I want to talk about the year Art Johnston suffered through leading up to the fateful East Graduation ceremony. East High School Assistant Principal Cheryl Lein had everything to do with this.

This is the paragraph I’d like folks to concentrate on before I go any further:

“I will now share one more vivid detail for no reason other than my indignation that “Investigator” Mary Rice told the School Board I had been vague about what exactly had happened all those years ago. Rice told us this when I asked her if she, as an attorney, would trust a witness, who was a known liar. I guess my alleged vagueness gave Mary Rice an excuse to evade my question.”

Mary Rice was a critical actor in informing Duluth that Art Johnston was bad news. Its worth remembering that the only evidence that the School Board brought to Federal Court to defend its decision to remove Art Johnston was Mary Rice’s report.

It’s also worth remembering that the District’s case foundered when it became apparent that Judge Davis didn’t accord Mary Rice’s report much weight. He went through all the claims against Art point by point and made it clear that every single one of them was based on an unconstitutional abridgment of Art’s free speech rights. I had been dismissive of the Rice report from the moment I first read it.

I may have more to say about this later tonight so stay tuned.

Next in the Thou Shalt Not series: Out for Blood?

Art’s brief press release demonstrating . . .

. . . his attorney’s contention that our ethic’s policy is as unconstitutional as it was when he first challenged the school board’s failed attempt to remove him from office.

I have voluntarily dismissed my lawsuit against the Duluth School Board after the Board failed to remove me, and dropped their attempt at removal.

This matter is far from settled as the Duluth School Board majority has failed to revise the Code of Ethics, and overtly threatens to remove any elected school board member, and even candidates, if they speak about issues. I may need to resort to legal action again, if the school board majority does not change their ways.

This action by the Duluth School Board has come at an enormous legal cost; and at a cost of the school board of ignoring financial, academic, and leadership issues at our school.

And I may have to resort to a lawsuit if the Board attempts to remove me for my Thou Shalt Not series.

Art Johnston to the rescue

I’ve been impatiently waiting for today’s John Ramos story in the Reader. He’s been covering the saga of the proposed $35 million library for a couple months. Art Johnston told me the kicker long ago and its a kicker all right.

The proposal was based on the dreadful information that it took $75,000 a month to heat or cool the building each year. That sounded ridiculous to me months ago when the idea first was proposed. After all $75,000 over 20 years is a million and a half bucks. Taxpayers would be well advised to compare paying $75,000 for energy per year to, oh say, $2,500,000 a year for library bond repayments before rushing forward. The bond repayments would be much more than the $35 million. It would be closer to $50 million by the time you added interest payments. That’s where I get the $2,500,000 comparison figure.

Then Art told me what Mr. Ramos spills in today’s column. The puny $75,000 energy costs are nonsense. That’s because Art discovered, after handing the City some public data requests, that this is the cost of flooding the library with nearly 30 million gallons of city drinking water to cool or warm the building every year. After using all this treated water the pipes flush it back into Lake Superior. Its a problem with a simple fix called insulation.

Simple as it is it took an engineer like Art to figure out what was going on. The City paid some consultants $65,000 to analyze the problem and they never figured out the basic problem and instead suggested building a new library…….because that’s what their clients the City wanted to hear. Hell, $65 thousand is about what poor old Art will have to pay for the attorneys that kept him from being kicked off the Duluth School board by the Tribune’s editorial board and the School Board majority. Art has just possibly saved Duluth taxpayers from paying an unnecessary two-and-a-half million in unnecessary bond payments.

Here’s how John concludes his column:

The Reader owes a debt of gratitude to Art Johnston, who took it upon himself to file data requests with the city that unearthed much of the information in this article.

This leaves me with one simple question. How come the Duluth School Administration won’t honor the data requests of a sitting school board member but the City of Duluth will honor the requests of an ordinary citizen?

Segregating Duluth

In preparation for writing a book about what led up to this last disasterous year I found a couple interesting tidbits after dusting off my old Red Plan records.

First, was a 6/15/2007 News Tribune editorial calling for a division of the School District into halves along Lake Avenue and opposing a division of the School District at 14th Ave East. The editors were worried that a 14th Ave division would cause “a serious demographic imbalance between the two schools along racial and economic lines.” Perhaps its most important to remember their hearts were in the right place despite the fact there was no way any east west division could avoid this result. They concluded their editorial bravely:

“Fifty-three years of experience gone right and wrong since the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education have shown unquestionably that racially defined school districts affect the demographics of neighborhoods and vice versa….It’s time to do the right thing and unite Duluth.”

Eight years and half a billion dollars later the Trib’s hopes have been utterly dashed. 2007 was the year I began speaking out against the Red Plan. It prompted me to run again for the School Board that year. The Paper ended up endorsing my opponent, a supporter of the Red Plan, who helped bring about just what the editors feared would happen. I lost. Now eight years later, my opponent is stepping down from the Board pleased with its many successes. Equity is not one of them.

Six months after my defeat on April, 12th of 2008 the DNT published my defense of Mike Jaros who had been attacked by the Tribune for expressing the very same sentiments that had motivated the Editorial Board the previous year. I said in part:

“There is only one problem with the red plan that the top dogs have conceded. It will, according to a map sent by the district to the Minnesota Department of Education, split Duluth along 14th Avenue East into rich / poor, high minority / low minority halves. There is a great irony in this and Jaros knows it well. His law originally allowed some building without referenda for, among other reasons, to encourage integration. It’s ironic because the red plan kills our integration program and segregates Duluth. It completely violates the spirit of Jaros’s law. Over time the red plan will impoverish Jaros’s western District as its prosperous residence flee to eastern Duluth. Shiny new schools will not stem this Exodus.

The News Tribune’s passive-aggressive criticism of Jaros is an embarrassment. Instead, the newspaper should be asking the same questions that Jaros has been asking. Why should the voters in Jaros’s district pay taxes to segregate themselves from the rest of the city? And why should they give up their right to vote?”

I truly hope that whoever steps into the shoes of our departing school board members steps up with their eyes wide open and a willingness to peep under the rug that their predecessors nailed to the floor.

The book, should I undertake and complete it, will be written to help pay for Art Johnston’s legal bills. I will send a copy of my book to any contributor who makes a donation exceeding $20 dollars to the cause of free speech. You can make a donation on line here.

3,000 books should cover the cost. Twenty bucks is a helluva lot less than anyone, especially our children, is having to pay for the Red Plan.

“a small ‘vitriolic’ group” drives Mern out

More from the old friend who voted to censure me last December.

He’s chosen to not run for re-election, he said, because of a small “vitriolic” group, including fellow board members Art Johnston and Harry Welty, that continues to criticize the school district largely because of its long-range facilities plan, completed in 2013.

This short, sour, Saturday story on Mern’s imminent departure from the Board says so much and so little at the same time.

Art and I have marveled to each other for a year now at the length’s our School Board has gone to to shut us up. Its usual 5 -2 majority could have done what countless elective bodies have done in the past, simply ignored its squeaky wheels and out voted us. Mern couldn’t do that as chair last year. Even now, when Art speaks, Mike’s general posture is head in hands resignation. If only that was all. Mike just can’t let Art’s complaints about WADMS or other issues go unanswered which turns five minute rants into twenty minute exercises in futility. Judy Seliga-Punyko is similarly afflicted.

But it hasn’t just been a succession of twenty minute finger pointing sessions that has driven Mike out. He has accused Art of assault, a charge that is as toxic as I believe it to be laughable. I must have warned the Board in my blog, which Mern won’t read, that this allegation would likely lead to the worst year in Mern’s life as well as Art Johnston’s.

I was looking forward to working with Mern before getting elected so I’m shocked by how things have spun out of control. I don’t disagree with Mike’s self evaluation, “I’m a fairly friendly guy.” Its another aspect of Mike’s personality which he admitted: “I’ve…never been good with conflict” that may in part explain the last year.

When I served on the Board previously Mike asked me to mediate a hockey dispute when the High School League cracked down on East High when one of its players came back from a brief stay with a verboten professional hockey training camp down in Iowa. It was my first close look at a sport foreign to me and I was pleased to help Mern face down the High School League which earned his gratitude and perhaps admiration.

Then on the eve of my departure from the school board I got an even closer look at Hockey when East’s Hockey tribe successfully removed a school superintendent for tampering with their hockey coach. Mern stood so far back in the crowd away from the heat that it was obvious he wanted no part of it. And yet Mern lit the fuse in the Art Johnston wars. Mern’s self appraisal simply glides over is his role in the current school board negativity that “wears” on him. Frankly if I were a resentful man I would resent his characterization of Art and me as “vitriolic.” Art is stubborn and never more so than when he thinks his significant other is under attack and I blog. As for me……..

I’ll let my eight loyal readers decide for themselves whether I’m vitriolic by leaving them with a sample to savor and spit out if they find it so. Mike made his bed but he won’t sleep in it.

The Atom Bomb

I’ve suspected that I may have unwittingly brought the Art Johnston Saga about. I told this to Jana Hollingsworth on the Day last June when the School board decided to proceed with an investigation of Art Johnston. Afterwards as I reeled from the decision i told Jana that I might have been the cause of the decision. Jana looked up at me skeptically and said. “Oh yeah Harry, Its all about you.” I think it was or at least I was a major part of the reason.

You will have to wait a bit for me to pound it out. I’m going to pick my lover up at the airport. I’ll crank it out tonight before hitting the sack to give my eight loyal readers something to read instead of just twiddling their fingers to see what develops in the Federal Court.

The Atom Bomb bay opens

I waited in vain for someone on our delusional School Board to see the light. My fellow members could not overcome their vanity and ego and do the right thing. Consequently, I’ll let my threat come to pass to help Art Johnston recover his good name and overcome the punishing and calculated financial costs this immoral assault on his good name has brought to his doorstep.

At 8:30 AM tomorrow I’m heading to Courtroom 1 in the Gerald Heaney Federal Court Building. No recording devices will be permitted so you will see me taking copious notes.

The Big Lie

Joseph Goebbels:

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”

or in this case the Duluth School Board with a little honest but unwitting help from the Fourth Estate.

March 4, 2015

“The results showed that Johnston demonstrated a personal conflict of interest and abuse of authority in his advocacy of his partner, who is employed by the district, during a work dispute she had. It also revealed that Johnston engaged in behavior deemed to be “abusive,” “threatening” and “intimidating” toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and former board chairman Mike Miernicki during incidents following a high school graduation ceremony in June.”

February 14, 2015 Senate bill would change school board removal rules – If it passes, it wouldn’t affect the Art Johnston case in Duluth, but he and Harry Welty lobby for bill

The Duluth board voted to oust Johnston in December following the results of an investigation that found behavior by him to be threatening, intimidating and abusive. The independent investigator also found several instances of personal conflict of interest surrounding actions he took on behalf of his partner, who is an employee of the district.

January 7, 2015 Investigation of board member cost $43,000

The investigator, Mary Rice, found, claims of personal conflict of interest, abusive, threatening behavior and violation of several board codes… to have merit.

December 23, 2014 School Board votes to censure Welty

The censure comes on the heels of a decision to remove Johnston from the board. After an investigation by an independent attorney, it was said he abused his authority as a board member; had a personal conflict of interest related to actions he took on behalf of his district-employed partner; and demonstrated abusive and intimidating behavior toward Gronseth and Miernicki

December 17, 2014 Public defends, admonishes Johnston at meeting

The reactions were in response to the results of a four-month investigation of Johnston that followed allegations that he abused his authority as a board member in relation to his advocacy for his district-employed partner, Jane Bushey, and acted inappropriately toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board Chairman Mike Miernicki, for example.

December 4, 2014 Johnston could get January Hearing

The board voted Tuesday to move ahead with removal of Johnston following an investigation into several allegations three fellow board members made against him in June. Four of the six allegations were found by an independent investigator to have merit, but the board’s five-page resolution for removal largely points to findings that Johnston chose his personal, private interests over board responsibilities and used his authority as a board member to further those interests, both of which violate the board’s code of ethics.

December 3, 2014 Board votes to oust Johnston

Johnston was accused last June of assault or improper conduct against Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board Chairman Mike Miernicki, abuse of authority, conflict of interest, making a racist or improper comment and violating the board’s code of ethics. An independent investigator from a Twin Cities law firm found merit for four of the six allegations

December 28, 2014 A look at the biggest stories of the year

That decision was based on an independent investigator’s findings that showed Johnston abused his authority, demonstrated a personal conflict of interest in acting on behalf of his district-employed partner where her work was concerned, and was threatening, abusive and intimidating toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board chairman Mike Miernicki,

December 18, 2014 letter to the editor badly behaving men besmirch school board

When Duluth School Board member Art Johnston got angry enough at Superintendent Bill Gronseth and at board Chairman Mike Miernicki after a graduation ceremony, he physically assaulted them, according to the findings of an independent investigation.

December 4, 2014 Johnston could get January hearing

The board voted Tuesday to move ahead with removal of Johnston following an investigation into several allegations three fellow board members made against him in June. Four of the six allegations were found by an independent investigator to have merit.

November 30, 2014 Editorial: Johnston can do the right thing and step down

The thoroughly researched and independent investigation into allegations against Duluth School Board member Art Johnston was damning enough.

Johnston was “intimidating,” “threatening,” “abusive ,” “disruptive” and “in public derogation,” an investigator found after viewing video recordings of School Board meetings, listening to audio recordings of other proceedings, interviewing dozens of witnesses and others, and reviewing countless emails and documents.

What’s more, Johnston violated the district’s code of ethics and board policy and was found to have a personal or other conflict of interest at least 14 times. He “abused his authority as a School Board member,” the investigator wrote.

November 29, 2014 School Board to investigate Johnston probe Tuesday

Johnston was accused of conflict of interest, abuse of authority, assault /improper conduct toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board Chairman Mike Miernicki, making a racist comment about a staff member and violating the board’s code of ethics. The report found that the allegation of a racist remark couldn’t be substantiated, nor could a conflict of interest as it relates to the board’s policy. That policy focuses on a conflict that could result in financial gain. But the report did conclude that the other allegations had merit.

November 21, 2014 Johnston Probe finds intimidation, abuse

An investigator has found that Duluth School Board member Art Johnston ‘s behavior the night of the East High School graduation in June was “intimidating, threatening and abusive” toward both Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board chairman Mike Miernicki.

The investigator’s report also concludes that several incidents relating to most of the allegations made against Johnston by three fellow board members earlier this year reveal that Johnston has shown a personal conflict of interest in his role as a board member.

November 19, 2014 Changes to Transfer Policy clear hurdle

The investigation against Johnston, for assault and abuse of authority charges, among others, is complete, but has yet to be made public by the district. It began in June.

November 14, 2014

An investigator has found that Duluth School Board member Art Johnston ‘s behavior the night of the East High School graduation in June was “intimidating, threatening and abusive” toward both Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board chairman Mike Miernicki.

November 8, 2014 Board”s Misconduct Probe Completed

The investigation into allegations made against Duluth School Board member Art Johnston has concluded, but the findings have not yet been made available to the public.

The board approved an investigation in June after incidents at the June 4 East High School graduation ceremony where Johnston is accused of either assaulting or showing improper conduct toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and School Board Chairman Mike Miernicki. The incidents stemmed from a work conflict of his partner, Jane Bushey, who is a paraprofessional for the district.

MAJ 6 – Mean Girls

I’d suggest starting at MAJ 1 (Martyrdom of Art Johnston)

Art and I have joked that the three women on our board remind us of the Tina Fey movie “Mean Girls.” I don’t know if the analogy is apropos because I’ve never seen the movie. I gather it is about popular girls making life miserable for kids who aren’t cool like, for instance, Art Johnston.

If the analogy holds I would have to add that Annie and Rosie seem an unlikely pair to finish off Chair Seliga-Punyko’s sorority.
Annie, seems to be an independent and confident woman who stands on her own abilities. As I’ve written she is a commanding chair of her Education Committee. But this outward appearance may be all whistle. At a Wellness round table during her election campaign Annie explained that she had suffered bullying as a youngster. Perhaps the back story fits the Roger’s and Hammerstein song that begins, “Whenever I feel afraid I hold myself erect and whistle a happy tune so no one will suspect I’m afraid.” It’s a strategy I’ve employed myself. Continue reading

MAJ 5 – Posts

As I get around to them I’ll start denoting some posts as MAJ meaning the Martyrdom of Art Johnston.

NOTE: this addition posted on Friday, March 27th.

To say I’ve been busy the last few days is an understatement. I have written some rough drafts of MAJ posts yet to come but I’m not content to write and post anything too hastily or carelessly. My horizon is the November election. At the moment I’ve got a lot on my plate not the least of which is a major home improvement project for which I have made half my house uninhabitable.

The previous post is not finished to my satisfaction so I’m just keeping it until I get back from a weekend out of Duluth. I’m going solo. The post to follow it, tentatively titled “Mean Girls,” will follow.

My brother and I will be attending a college reunion in Mankato this weekend. I’m hopping in the car in about ten minutes. The reunion will give us a chance to place our Mother’s earthly remains besides those of our Father. Sometimes immediate concerns (like my focus on the Duluth Schools) have to take a backseat.

I’m sorry for the recent spate of mangled and incomplete posts. I’ll fix them up when I find time in a few days.

MAJ 4 – Ducks in a row

Last week as I was rummaging through a file cabinet of family memorabilia I opened up a folder about my son. Inside were pictures of all his classmates from second grade. One smiling young lady with long golden hair is now my colleague on the Duluth School Board, Annie Harala.

Lamb eyeballs

If ever I was primed to look forward to a new colleague it was surely Annie. She asked me if I remembered the incident with the lamb eyeballs. How could I forget? A few years back when my son, Robb, decided washing dishes wasn’t a mentally challenging enough career path he began taking classes at Lake Superior College. In short order he began thinking about becoming and EMT (Emergency Medical Technician). Because of the lamb eyeballs I was skeptical about this and a later higher trajectory ambition of his to become a doctor. I just wasn’t sure he was ready for blood and guts.

Annie and Robb both had Mrs. Lemons in their second grade class at Chester Park. Mrs. Lemons, who had also taught Robb’s older sister had some connection with folks in animal husbandry (farming). One day she brought a bucket of lamb eyeballs into her class for educational purposes or maybe Easter. We got an anxious call from the school that day. As soon as Robb got a gander at the eyeballs staring back at him he was out like a light. It didn’t bother any of the other kids. Like Annie it gave them a fun reminiscence and me some concern that my son was pursuing the wrong job.

Easy Victory

Annie easily came out on top in the at large race for school board when I finally ran again in 2013. That was easy to anticipate, far easier than my second place finish.

Duluth was still recovering from the Red Plan and Annie had no political baggage from that brouhaha. She was young, energetic, and had a following of young teachers that she had helped place throughout Duluth as volunteers. My daughter’s friends at Edison told Keely that they were thrilled that Annie was a candidate. That Annie might have had some reservations about Edison no doubt did not occur them. Annie’s Mother is also a long time acquaintance of mine having been a teacher in the Duluth Schools from the time I first began running for the School Board. She was around at the time that ISD 709 teachers got bruised feelings when my school board invited Edison into Duluth. [Public school teachers often suffer from damaged egos. The teachers in Wisconsin where Scotty Walker is busy busting their chops and their unions must be little more than mush these days. But I digress.]

Growing into the job

Annie wasted little time stretching her arms. From day one she asked probing questions, was business-like and had an intuitive feel for the job. I’ve been teaching and poking around the schools for forty years but I’ve missed out on lots of history since I stepped off the Board in 2004. For all these voids in my experience Annie has an easy command.

Of all the chairmen of committees Annie is the most natural leader. If I were to fault her for anything it is in being too sensitive about the other board member’s distaste for Art Johnston. She often artlessly parrots the other board members when they try to get Art to stop commenting on any subject that he is concerned about. This almost always guarantees a much longer discussion. This almost happened at last night’s school board meeting.

When WADM’s came up and Art’s light went on Mike Miernicki, who now sits beside me, let loose a loud distraught exhalation before plunging his head into his hands. Then, no doubt to Mike’s amazement, Art simply noted pleasantly that he was glad to see our student enrollment had ticked up by fifteen students. This is Mike’s kneejerk reaction to Art’s every comment.

It didn’t take long for the other board members to inculcate Annie with their phobic allergy. In particular Judy Seliga-Punyko gathered the three female board members around her. From the beginning I saw them huddled in conferences after every meeting out by the parking lot. It was coalition building; a natural part of the political process. I can only imagine what stories Judy told her new colleagues. I got the same from Art as I became his first ally in two years. There is one other coalition between Mike Miernicki and Bill Westholm that that goes back to their days as students in Denfeld High School.

I had not anticipated the immediate coalition that formed between Annie, Rosie and Judy. I knew that Rosie and Judy had natural antagonisms going back to my earlier service on the Board. I also knew that Rosie had served in a position that was in some respects more exalted when she served as the president of the Minnesota State Parent, Teacher, Student Assn. (PTSA) Rosie had preceded Judy as the President of the Duluth PTSA, where the original antagonism surfaced. I would have thought this formidable background would have made Rosie a little less Judy’s follower than she quickly seemed to become. You would never have known that Art had once urged Rosie to run for the School Board.
These alliances were less obvious in the first three months after we were seated. That’s partly because I told Art that we should back off asking questions about things like Red Plan soft costs for several months in order to build up some trust. We had bright sunny meetings during that all too brief period. That ended once we began asking questions. The three coalitions congealed into two – five board members to two.

Ducks in a Row

One moment in our first month on the Board aptly illustrates the paths we were taking.

The Minnesota School Board Association has its annual conference in January at the Minneapolis Convention Center. I drove down with Art in his car in snowy weather with his wipers on the blink. I spent a fair amount of my time hanging out his car window with a long scraper keeping the windows free of snow so we could see ahead.

I returned with Mike and Bill which (fodder for future posts) because Art was planning to visit one of his children after the conference. I left the conference before its final gathering because Mike and Bill wanted to get an early start home. That left four of us behind.
When he returned from the convention Art described the pivotal scene for me. Art was in the convention hall waiting for his fellow board members to arrive so as to sit with them.

Judy Seliga-Punyko strode into the Center’s ballroom first and walked right past Art without turning her head in his direction. Judy was followed by Rosie who, emulating the leader, also walked past Art without turning her head. Right behind them followed Annie whose heart was not yet turned to stone. Annie didn’t break her stride as she kept up her elders but she did turn toward Art looking resigned and gave Art an apologetic shrug. The die was cast.

MAJ 3 – Remorse

Young Annie Harala asked one question of District officials at our closed meeting yesterday. Were the students subject to expulsion remorseful for their actions. I’ll only say that the response was what the person putting such a question might hope for.

It is the second time Annie Harala has asked this question in my hearing. The first was at the meeting in which she joined the majority to vote for a hearing that would preceed Art Johnston’s removal from the Duluth School Board. She asked attorney, Mary Rice, if at any time Art Johnston has expressed remorse for shoving the Superintendent for which she was virtually the sole witness. The answer did not satisfy Ms. Harala.

Of course, if Art believed that he did not shove the Superintendent he should not be expected to be remorseful.

I’m close to describing the particulars leading up to Art’s antics and they will portray a very different picture which I was unable to divulge to the rest of the Board because of the damned laws on data privacy. Some months ago I did share a more candid description of these mitigating actions with Annie in writing but my explanation obviously failed to change her mind.

Annie is the primary reason that the Board has an excuse to remove Art Johnston. Had she detected remorse in him she might have relented. She did not. As a result we are about to go to court and the reputation of the School Board has been unmercifully sullied and our supervision over our children’s schools deeply unsettled.

I would turn the question on Annie. Is she felling any remorse for the part she played in letting these events get out of control? I don’t know but like her I’d like to think she is suffering some remorse whether she admits to to it or not.

MAJ 2 – Rosie

This post and the next will reference small interactions that too place in the closed session but which, in my estimation, do not give away anything related to data privacy.

Member Rosie Loeffler-Kemp spoke earnestly about the need to keep the meetings discussion confidential. She has done this in other closed sessions almost always with a furtive nod in my direction which I have taken as accusatory and very particularly directed at me. Not tonight. It came out pro forma like something an official is always expected to say much like accountants always quote that paragraph in their audits about its being in compliance with official accounting standards.

Just before the meeting as I was heading in the parking lot Rosie passed me in her car going the opposite direction. She saw me and smiled pleasantly and gave me a wave which I reciprocated. Readers will note that this was quite different than the last time we had eye contact and Rosie was still smarting over my comments about the young African American who attended the conference on citizen involvement. If the School Board wasn’t about to dive full fledged into a courtroom again I’d take these as an excellent sign that we could go back to square one. Alas this is not to be.

Since Art Johnston’s character has come under so much scrutiny I feel compelled to honor the sage old adage what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. For a long time I’ve thought that the only Board member that would escape terribly hard scrutiny in my evaluations would be the youngest member Annie Harala. But no. Even Annie will be subject to my more rigorous scrutiny. I left a phone message with Annie asking that she call me back in the hopes that we could still find one more way to escape the coming legal assault. She did not return my call. Neither, of course, did the Superintendent.

Rosie’s demeanor yesterday suggested to me what might have been an opening to resolve our differences. We have not made that step. Once again I say Damn us, Damn me.

MAJ 1 – Restoration

I can’t say much more about our closed meeting yesterday than the Duluth News Tribune reported.

The School Board expelled two students as the story says. It follows on the heals of a troubling incident that made the front page of the Trib several days running. Draw any connection you wish. I will say that the school board asked almost every question that I think the public is asking. By virtue of being Board members we had our questions answered. We were concerned with justice. For my part I mentioned that in the early days of plane hijacking people in airports who joked about hijacking a plane were carted off.

We were concerned that there be some redemption possible. Our school leaders assured us that restorative justice would be employed. That’s something I’ve been enthusiastic about for a number of years although I’m not convinced we are as well practiced in it in ISD 709 as we should be.

The School Board unanimously agreed with the Administration’s response and went in to vote on our public resolution to accept the expulsions described. The Denfeld band was setting up to give us a little Music in the Schools concert so we shooed them out for five minutes to keep them uncontaminated from the unpleasantness.

Whatever our failings that may have helped lead up to tonight I think we acquitted ourselves well this night.