Duluth School Board member Art Johnston says he doesn’t regret getting involved in a workplace dispute involving his partner - an employee of the school district he helps govern - but he’s sorry for the way he handled it.

“I apologize for raising my voice,” he said, and for things he said to Superintendent Bill Gronseth in the heat of anger during a confrontation at the East High School graduation that in part triggered an investigation into several allegations against Johnston. Although he hasn’t apologized personally to Gronseth, Johnston said he will make that overture if board members and administrators want to work things out.

Yet Johnston insists defending his longtime partner “was the right thing to do.”

“A wrong was committed,” he told the News Tribune last week.

Johnston says he wants an amicable resolution to the allegations that arose from his involvement in Jane Bushey’s forced transfer from East. He’s facing an investigation, approved by the board June 10 in a 5-2 vote, that will be conducted by the Eden Prairie, Minn., law firm Fafinski, Mark and Johnson at a cost of $210 an hour.

The allegations against Johnston include:

  • assault or otherwise improper conduct toward Gronseth and board chairman Mike Miernicki;
  • racist or an otherwise improper comment toward a staff member;
  • abuse of authority as a School Board member as it relates to a staff member or members; and
  • conflict of interest in relation to a staff member and violation of the board’s code of ethics.

Johnston denies each of the allegations.

While it is unknown who made each of the complaints that prompted the investigation, it could lead to Johnston’s removal from the board. Minnesota statute says that a member can be removed, with proper cause, by a vote of at least four members.

School transfer

Bushey, a licensed practical nurse, has been a paraprofessional at East for the past six years. Her job involves the personal care, feeding and administering of medications to developmentally, cognitively delayed students, some of whom have multiple impairments. On May 29, with six days remaining in the school year, she was told by human resources staff to report to another school for the remainder of the year. She’s been assigned to Ordean East Middle School for next year.

Bushey told the News Tribune she’d been accused of violating a privacy law involving a student. It’s a charge she denies, and one she said she wasn’t allowed to answer before being removed. It was raised by Steve Hansen, a parent of an East student who had long been in Bushey’s care, both at school and in the separate homes of Hansen and the child’s mother, Hansen’s ex-wife, while Bushey worked part-time as a home health care nurse.

Hansen said he retained guardianship of his son last fall and had developed a new care plan for him.

“I had concerns with Jane Bushey working with (my son),” he said. “I felt how she was handling those assignments wasn’t in the best interest for him.”

Hansen said he raised the issue with the school district. He’d also recently learned that some school-related information about his son had ended up in the possession of someone who otherwise wouldn’t have been privy to it, and he raised concerns to district officials that it may have been offered by Bushey.

He has no hard proof, he said, but alerted the district to the possibility.

“It’s a concern I have for all of my son’s caregivers,” Hansen said of keeping information private.

Bushey was a witness for the student’s mother in the guardianship case, and court records indicate her testimony was seen by the presiding judge as “biased” against the father.

Bushey understands Hansen’s concerns about his son’s care, she said, but she follows the orders of doctors.

“If the care plan is written as doctor’s orders, I would be in big trouble as a nurse if I didn’t follow it,” she said.

Bushey and Johnston speculate that she was moved not only because of Hansen’s privacy concerns but because district officials claimed there could be possible legal action. Hansen said he never threatened legal action.

Vocal critic

The investigation puts Johnston in the familiar role of adversary to his fellow board members. Since being elected to office in 2009, Johnston, who represents the West Duluth neighborhoods of District 4, has often stood alone as a vocal, combative critic of the district’s decisions across a variety of issues. Johnston’s focus most often has involved the $315 million long-range facilities plan approved in 2007 and completed last year, along with claims of district dishonesty and financial mismanagement. These subjects were platforms for both of his board campaigns.

More recently, he’s accused former board leaders of signing off on expensive modifications to various construction project agreements without the approval of the entire board, although a past board approved a resolution for such actions. He often brings up declining enrollment, pointing to the facilities plan, also known as the Red Plan, as the reason.

Both Johnston and Bushey, who aren’t married, said her forced transfer is a way for administrators to punish Johnston for his years of outspoken attacks on the district.

“They wouldn’t have gone after Jane had she not been my spouse,” Johnston said.

The transfer of Bushey to another school isn’t related to a School Board member, said district human resources manager Tim Sworsky. At times, he said, the district moves personnel at the request of a parent based on the merit of concerns.

“As a district, we get those a lot,” Sworsky said. “It’s not something we take lightly.”

Officials talk to both sides and act, or not. Sometimes problems can be resolved with a discussion, and sometimes discipline or charges are necessary, he said. If an issue isn’t as serious but poses a conflict of interest, staff may be moved.

Bushey says she’s saddened by her removal.

“I’m really attached to these kids,” she said. “Several will be seniors this year. I want to go through that part of their life with them. I don’t understand why I have to be in the middle of this.”

Allegations

Johnston accompanied Bushey to various meetings about her job situation and also met with Gronseth separately to discuss Bushey, prior to the June 4 incident at the East graduation. He told Gronseth and other administrators in meetings that he was acting as a significant other and not as a School Board member, he said.

He said to Gronseth, “ ‘I don’t like doing this; I should not be doing this because it’s family and I feel uncomfortable using my position talking to you.’

“And I was quite apologetic … I do have an influence, of course, and I don’t like to flout it,” Johnston said.

He assumes meetings he attended with and on behalf of Bushey are where the allegations of authority abuse and conflict of interest stem from. He admitted how others could view those actions that way, but he said “doing nothing” wasn’t an option. One duty as a board member, he said, is to ensure employees have due process.

“This was no different from any other situation,” he said. “I knew more about it, but I didn’t abuse my position.”

The board’s code of ethics policy lists several items, and it’s unclear what is being referenced in regard to Johnston. He counters that there often are times when various policies are not followed by the board to the letter. As for the allegation involving a racist comment, Johnston is mystified.

“Nobody has a clue what this is about,” he said. “I am very involved in the community of color and everybody knows that.”

Members of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP supported Johnston by attending the special board meeting approving the investigation.

The claims of assault or improper conduct both stem from separate incidents at the Duluth East graduation ceremony. Bushey had already been working at another school but was hoping to return to East on the last two days that school was in session to help close out the year and say goodbye to students. She and Johnston say talks with district officials were moving in that direction. Johnston, wanting to confirm, approached Gronseth following the ceremony.

Johnston said he was told she couldn’t return. Johnston, angry, followed Gronseth as he walked away and “tapped him on the shoulder.” He accused Gronseth of lying to him and told him he held him “personally responsible” for Bushey’s situation, he said, noting he also threatened legal action.

“I didn’t threaten him physically or use profanity,” Johnston said. “I have a loud voice, and when I get upset people usually know it.”

He then sought out Miernicki, who, before the ceremony, Johnston said, had reassured the couple that Bushey’s situation would be settled in a positive way. What Johnston said to Miernicki in anger was similar to what he had said to Gronseth, he noted, but he didn’t touch him.

Questions regarding these incidents and the other allegations could not be answered by district officials because of privacy laws, Sworsky said.

Going forward

Johnston, a semi-retired U.S. Forest Service engineer, says relations between he and the majority of board members are “irreparable.”

“It’s going to be difficult for us to sit in the same room and have a conversation anymore,” he said.

The silver lining, he said, is the support he’s received from constituents - “those that don’t even know me.”

Board member Annie Harala, who voted for the investigation and was one of the members who called the meeting to discuss such a move, disagrees that the board will be unable to work together.

“We are still serving students,” she said. “We had a four-hour board meeting the other night. We are still policy-making.”

Boards face dissention, she said, and continue to work as they face it.

“This isn’t stopping us from doing our job; this is another piece of it,” she said.

The investigation is a severe step to take, Johnston said, when something as simple as censuring him would make more sense if he did something wrong.

“This seems like a long, drawn-out Draconian process for my, at best, ethical violations,” Johnston said.