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Our view / Duluth School Board: No limit on cost of investigation

Surely there must be some sort of limit or cap on the number of hours for which an Eden Prairie, Minn., law firm can bill the Duluth school district to investigate alleged wrongdoing by School Board member Art Johnston. Mustn’t there be?

Actually, there’s “no cap, no,” Superintendent Bill Gronseth acknow-ledged during a meeting this week with News Tribune editorial board members.

So how high, at $210 an hour, can district taxpayers expect the cost of the investigation to climb?

“I haven’t contemplated a number at this point,” the district’s business services manager, Bill Hanson, said. “We’re early in the process. We haven’t even received our first invoice. So I mean, you know, I’m not assuming that there’s going to be an issue of unreasonableness at this point.”

District taxpayers can hope Hanson’s hunch is correct. But none of us would be wrong for being concerned about how hard this probe might hit us in the pocketbook. Few of us would embark in a potentially costly home-improvement project, for example, without at least an idea about the size of the final bill. We should be able to expect our public bodies, spending our money, to be as responsible.

Johnston stands accused of assault or otherwise improper conduct toward the superintendent and toward School Board Chairman Mike Miernicki. He’s also accused of making a racist or otherwise improper comment toward a district staff member, of abusing his authority as a School Board member as it relates to a staff member or members, of conflict of interest as it relates to a staff member, and of a violation of the board’s code of ethics.  

Specifics of the allegations haven’t been disclosed, and what has been disclosed — raised voices during what seems like a pretty minor altercation at the Duluth East High School graduation this spring — has left the News Tribune and others wondering whether this potentially expensive investigation is really necessary at all. Couldn’t the parties involved just work it out without involving lawyers and fast-growing legal fees? Couldn’t the expense, mess and PR nightmare of an outside-firm investigation be avoided?

The School Board, privy to information the rest of us frustratingly don’t have, decided a month and a day ago the inquiry was indeed necessary. Members voted 5-2 to hire the law firm of Fafinski Mark and Johnson at the aforementioned rate of $210 per hour. Its investigation has begun and could wrap up “in the next few weeks,” Gronseth said.

He and Hanson declined to say little else, citing data-privacy laws.

An expected School Board vote next week clarifying that elected members of the board are not employees could help make more data public and could lead to the welcome release of more information.

Meanwhile, Johnston, who charged that the investigation could cost as much as $200,000 based on other similar investigations, acknowledged Thursday he made a mistake when calculating his number. His actual estimate, he told the News Tribune Opinion page, is now about $20,000.

“$20,000 is still significant, but it’s not as bad as $200,000,” Johnston said.

Either way, with no limit on billable hours and no cap on spending for this investigation, taxpayers wouldn’t be wrong to keep concerned watch on their pocketbooks in the weeks to come.