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Minnesota Senate bill would change process for removing school board members

A bill introduced in the Minnesota Senate this session would eliminate a school board's authority to remove members.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, introduced the bill after hearing for a couple of years from a constituent who was upset about the practice, she said Friday. The Duluth School Board currently is pursuing such action against one of its members.

While it's a rare occurrence, it's not appropriate to have such a decision made by a small number of people, Bonoff said, when a larger public has elected the member.

Minnesota law allows a board to remove a member for proper cause by a vote of four people, followed by a hearing. The bill introduced by Bonoff and Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, would authorize recall elections for school board members, in the same way other local elected officials can be recalled.

"I think this discussion is warranted," Bonoff said. "I do think there should be a different threshold."

Passage of the bill would not affect Duluth School Board member Art Johnston's situation, because the process for his removal has already begun.

But Johnston and fellow board member Harry Welty lobbied in St. Paul recently for the bill, upon hearing of its introduction.

Welty on Friday acknowledged the bill would have no bearing on Johnston's situation, but going forward "others would have to have a serious reason" to propose that someone be removed, he said, noting, "I think it's a sensible thing to do."

Under the statute that would cover school boards if the bill passes, any registered voter can petition for a removal election. Allegations of wrongful actions must also be presented, along with signatures from registered voters in the district totaling at least 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election for the office held by the official.

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. Johnston disagrees with the findings. The board's decision triggered a hearing, at which a retired judge will preside; it has yet to be scheduled. The judge will offer an opinion, but the board will decide whether Johnston remains a member.

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