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Duluth School Board saga ends with lawsuit's dismissal

Duluth School Board member Art Johnston volunteered to dismiss his federal lawsuit against the school district and several board members. (File / News Tribune)

Duluth School Board member Art Johnston's federal lawsuit against the school district and five fellow board members ended Monday when Johnston volunteered to dismiss the case.

"I still think their code of ethics is unconstitutional," said Johnston, who'd filed suit last March after the board first voted to remove him from his seat representing western Duluth's 4th District. "Rather than go through and do a (Minnesota) Supreme Court issue on the code of ethics I've decided to dismiss it."

Johnston has maintained throughout that he has been the target of a witch hunt — saying the district's code of ethics was being used to undercut him for being an unabashedly outspoken critic of the district. The lawsuit sought to stop a legal hearing required for Johnston's removal, to declare a board code of ethics unconstitutional and to award him damages.

He said he'd revisit a lawsuit if the board tried to silence or dismiss him again.

"If they try to do this again," Johnston said, "we will end up in court again."

The school board voted last December to remove Johnston following a costly investigation that revealed intimidating behavior by Johnston toward Superintendent Bill Gronseth and former board chairman Mike Miernicki — stemming from incidents at Duluth East High School's graduation ceremony in June 2014 — and conflicts of interest, including Johnston attending staff meetings within the district that involved his partner who is employed by the district.

As the legal sparks began to fly, the school district reversed course and settled for censuring Johnston last May.

"Mr. Johnston's lawsuit has been moot since the school board's May decision to censure him, instead of removing him from the School Board," said Minneapolis-based attorney Margaret Skelton, a lawyer for the district. "Since that time, we have been encouraging Mr. Johnston to voluntarily dismiss his lawsuit against the school district. We are glad that Mr. Johnston has finally agreed to voluntarily dismiss this lawsuit without the need for further court involvement."

Recently, the board addressed language in the board's code of conduct that stressed civility and removed a part about refraining from making disparaging remarks about other board members.

Johnston said his decision to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit was buoyed by the fact that three of the board members listed in his suit are not running for re-election this November. He said he's eager to get back to the work of addressing the district's declining enrollment, among other issues.

"This is good news for political discourse in Duluth," Johnston said, adding that he hoped for an election that will heal the board and allow it to "show the public we as a board can actually function rather than them going after me and trying to remove me."