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Duluth School Board opens members’ data to public

Duluth School Board members are no longer considered employees of the district — which means most data related to members will be available to the public upon request.

The board approved the measure unanimously at its Tuesday meeting. One member hoping for an immediate impact is Art Johnston. Several allegations were leveled against him last month involving possible abuse of authority, conflict of interest and improper conduct, which led to the start of an investigation.

“We all know what this is for,” Johnston said.

His concern was a district attorney had, in the past, advised a school board in southern Minnesota to enact an opposite policy, and he wondered why the advice was different. He planned to submit his request today.

The measure states that all School Board members are not employees for the purposes of the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, which is the state law that, for example, makes much of the information on elected officials public. District officials said last week that several other Minnesota school districts have passed similar resolutions.

Duluth’s resolution states the board weighed various “political, educational and public accountability considerations” in deciding whether members should be considered employees.

“Public interest in transparency outweighs any competing privacy interest that individual board members may have in regard to most data that the district maintains,” the resolution reads.

That line, said member Harry Welty, is the one he’s counting on. He said he spent two hours on Tuesday talking with an attorney in regard to the Johnston investigation, and he hopes the resolution will help the results become publicized.

“The member being investigated is having to live with a dark cloud … because a lot of unpleasant things have been alleged,” Welty said. “I’m very much in favor of this policy change.”

Member Annie Harala said the policy ensures a sense of transparency for the public going forward.

“It’s about the public’s right to know,” she said.

Most of the accusations against Johnston appear to stem from his involvement in his partner’s workplace dispute. She works for the district as a paraprofessional. Two allegations involve Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board Chairman Mike Miernicki, and alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct after the East High School graduation.    

Curriculum updates

In other business, the board also approved new social studies books and materials for grades K-5 for roughly $238,000 and grades 7-8 for about $122,000, some of which is paid for with operating levy money.

The Minnesota Department of Education had directed the district earlier in the school year to update its curriculum to state standards by the end of this summer, following a complaint alleging that Laura MacArthur Elementary wasn’t teaching science and social studies. The district’s curriculum before this summer was about 40 percent updated. Teachers have been working to complete the update by September.

The last K-5 social studies adoption was in 1999. The last middle school history adoption was in 2006, with the last geography adoption in 2005. Sixth-grade social studies received an update last year.

How radically standards have changed is the major determinant in curriculum updates, said Michael Cary, the new director of curriculum and instruction. Some revisions are more serious than others, he said.

The district is also researching the purchase of Google Chromebooks for ninth- and 11th-grade social studies classes at an estimated cost of $81,000. New standards require technology skills at that level, but that process is still in an early phase, said Susan Schmidt, the district’s social studies curriculum coach.

It took teachers about two weeks to choose a text that aligned with standards, but some had reviewed samples for two months prior, Schmidt said.