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Duluth School Board votes to censure Welty

Duluth School Board member Harry Welty has a heated exchange with board Chairman Mike Miernicki on Monday. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@ duluthnews.com)

The Duluth School Board on Monday night voted to censure member Harry Welty for, in part, publicly revealing the purchase price of the former Central High School property.

The board voted 6-1 for the measure, with Welty supporting it. Member Art Johnston was the only member to oppose the censure during a heated, sometimes out-of-control meeting that at one point had Chairman Mike Miernicki advise a small but vocal group of Welty and Johnston supporters that the meeting wasn’t an open forum.

Welty late last month put the purchase price — which members discussed in closed session and had been told was confidential until a purchase agreement was signed — on his personal blog. He later wrote about what he had done, acknowledging it and calling it a mistake.

The board’s resolution listed that disclosure, citing the state statute it says was violated, along with Welty’s disclosure to media of a letter from a school district attorney deemed subject to attorney-client privilege. The letter regarded the months-long Johnston investigation that the board began in June.

The resolution reads: “Mr. Welty has been advised on several occasions of the importance of data privacy. The above described conduct demonstrates that Mr. Welty abdicated his responsibilities as a member of the School Board in favor of his personal interests.”

The censure is a public way to condemn a board member’s actions, but it will not affect Welty’s position as an elected official. The meeting to discuss allegations, which was held in open session at Welty’s request, was called by members Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Judy Seliga-Punyko.

Welty voted for his own censure, saying it was his way of “apologizing to the community” for risking the sale of property he called “a white elephant.”

Central High School has been closed since 2011. Welty was referring to its annual maintenance costs.

He said he wasn’t informed ahead of time what the allegations against him were, and he assumed they were about personnel information he might have disclosed related to the Johnston investigation. He said he wasn’t sorry for releasing the attorney letter about the investigation, citing his disapproval of the probe and its results.

Johnston said Monday’s meeting was illegal, and he called for an investigation against Superintendent Bill Gronseth and other administration via a resolution that said there hasn’t been compliance with various public records requests — mostly related to the long-range facilities plan and his own investigation — he has filed. His amendment failed 2-5, with he and Welty voting for it. Johnston also said Kevin Rupp, a longtime attorney for the district who was present to answer questions, was an “ambulance chaser” who shouldn’t be advising the board.

“This administration has lied to us in the past,” Johnston said, and the board shouldn’t go forward with a censure, deeming it “shameless” and “reckless.”

Loeffler-Kemp said the censure was related to Welty’s behavior, which wasn’t in line with the responsibilities of a board member.

“As a School Board member, we do have an obligation to do what’s best for the district,” she said. “And your behaviors … did put the district at risk. If you were an individual citizen, you know, you can do whatever you want. When all of us became elected representative School Board members, we had a different role.”

Welty, finishing the first year of his most recent term — he also served from 1996-2004 — is best known for his opposition to the district’s long-range facilities plan, most strongly for its approval without a community vote.

The censure comes on the heels of a decision to remove Johnston from the board. Following 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, for example. An allegation of making a racist remark toward a staff member was found to be unsubstantiated.

The results of that investigation will lead to an administrative hearing helmed by a retired judge that will resemble a trial. It’s been said it could happen in January. Minnesota statute says that a member can be removed for proper cause with a vote of at least four members.

A censure “is admonishing someone for behavior we felt crossed the line in terms of some of the ethics and some of the issues we have facing us,” Vice Chairman Bill Westholm said. “The good thing that happened is that member Welty realized he did cross the line.”

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