An investigation into allegations made against Duluth School Board member Art Johnston - including those from Superintendent Bill Gronseth and board Chairman Mike Miernicki - was approved by the board Tuesday night.

The board voted 5-2 during a special meeting made public at Johnston’s request. Members Johnston and Harry Welty opposed the measure, which includes the hiring of a Minneapolis-area firm, not before used by the district, to conduct the investigation.

Allegations include assault or otherwise improper conduct toward the superintendent and board chairman, 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, conflict of interest in relation to a staff member and violation of the board’s code of ethics.

 The meeting - run by Vice Chairman Bill Westholm because of Miernicki’s involvement in the allegations - was called by members Annie Harala, Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Judy Seliga-Punyko.

Lengthy, contentious accusations were made by Johnston before the vote was taken. He accused Gronseth of lying to him about a personnel issue, and district administration of personally attacking him because of his outspoken opinions on various issues facing the district. He denied all of the allegations, saying in particular the incidents described as assaults were situations in which he was merely angry, and no assaultive behavior occurred.

“Did I raise my voice and point my finger at Chair Miernicki and Bill Gronseth … Yes I did,” he said, noting his behavior was rooted in a personnel issue involving his longtime partner, who works for the school district.

The allegation of a racist comment struck a particular chord with Johnston, who said he prides himself as a champion of people of color.

“There are people here in the audience from the NAACP,” he said, who are there supporting him. “This is a pretty serious allegation.”  

He and Welty asked several times that people who brought forth the allegations talk about why they did. Westholm told each repeatedly that that information would come out in an investigation.

“The sole intent of this meeting is to approve an investigation,” he said. “We need a neutral party.”

Johnston railed on the potential high costs of the investigation and disagreed that the chosen firm - Fafinski Mark and Johnson of Eden Prairie, Minn., would be objective. He made a motion to have the News Tribune choose one instead. The measure failed. The newspaper had not been consulted on the issue and probably would not get involved in the matter.

The investigation could result in the removal of Johnston from the board. State statute allows the removal of a member, for proper cause, by vote of at least four members. The statute is rarely used, said Greg Abbott, communications director for the Minnesota School Boards Association.

After the meeting, Welty said the allegations were mean-spirited, and highlighted the dysfunction of the board.

“It’s a terrible distraction of the education of our children,” he said.

Privacy laws prevented Gronseth from responding to much of what Johnston said, he noted. He said the process of the investigation would “allow the facts to come to light.”

Johnston - in the first year of his second term on the board - is known for his outspoken attacks on Johnson Controls, the company that managed the district’s $315 million long-range construction and consolidation plan, and for accusations against the district of financial mismanagement. He said he had retained an attorney.

“This is the modus operandi of the School Board,” he said of its actions. “They do character assassinations.”

Loeffler-Kemp said an attorney was consulted before deciding to hold the meeting, a decision that wasn’t made lightly.

“We as a board have a code of ethics for School Board members,” she said. “It was with a lot of thought and consideration that we came to bring this resolution forward, and I hope the public can understand that.”

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