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Gronseth is finalist for metro school job

Bill Gronseth

Duluth schools Superintendent Bill Gronseth is a finalist for the top job in a metro-area school district.

Gronseth, 46, is one of six candidates for the superintendent position at the Prior Lake-Savage area school district, which has buildings in both cities about 20 miles southwest of Minneapolis.

Gronseth wasn't looking for a new job, he said, but "the opportunity presented itself" through a recruiter.

"It seems like the next logical step," Gronseth said, noting that doing the work he's passionate about in a new district is "exciting."

The Duluth native and longtime Duluth educator and administrator has been superintendent since 2012. He replaced I.V. Foster, who left following a licensing issue after only six months.

In Gronseth's time as superintendent, the controversial $315 million long-range facilities plan was completed and money was invested in teachers and other classroom expenses following a successful referendum. Duluth is moving along on a clear, community-defined path, Gronseth said, in working toward improved academic performance and safer schools.

But the superintendent has also been mired in monthslong School Board drama. Board member Art Johnston is suing the district and several other board members following the board's decision to oust Johnston. Reasons included his involvement in his district-employed partner's work disputes and behavior that included "shoving" the superintendent from behind, according to an independent investigation commissioned by the board. Johnston has disputed all allegations, and has said his constitutional rights have been violated.

A required hearing will be held in May, after which the board will make a final decision on removing Johnston.

Gronseth said the events of the past few months played a role in his decision to seek a new job, but were not the sole reason.

"It hasn't been easy," he said, noting some of what's been said publicly about him has hurt his family and friends. "I've just stayed focused on what's important," he said, referring to students.

"Should I stay in Duluth I do so gladly and will continue to work just as hard and be just as focused on students," he said.

School Board chairwoman Judy Seliga-Punyko said the possible loss of Gronseth "would be huge."

"He's done an incredible job of bringing the community and our schools together," she said, noting that some upcoming administrative retirements would deepen the loss. Assistant superintendent Ed Crawford and special services director Laura Frederickson both plan to retire this year.

Seliga-Punyko wouldn't address the effect of board issues on Gronseth, but said "this is a 24/7 job. Everything that has happened to the district — whether it's something in the schools, or the (death) of a student — it affects the superintendent. It's a lot of stress but he's handled it well."

Board member Bill Westholm, a former longtime Duluth principal, said the city is "diverse and fascinating" and Gronseth has done "a great job" with its challenges.

It would be hard to lose someone who has invested so much in Duluth schools, Westholm said, noting recent months have been "kind of tough for him in a lot of ways."

The Prior Lake-Savage district, which includes students from Prior Lake, Minn., and some from neighboring Savage, is similar in size to Duluth's school district but is expected to grow rapidly in the next few years. Enrollment now is 7,400 students, about 1,000 fewer than in Duluth district schools.

Gronseth and his wife, Deanna, who is also a Duluth school district employee, have two sons. One is a sophomore at Michigan Technological University and the other a junior at East High School.

Other candidates for the position are Jeff Holmberg, assistant superintendent of Prior Lake-Savage area schools; Nicholas Ouellette, superintendent of Odebolt-Arthur & Battle Creek Iowa Consolidated School; Thomas Sager, director of finance and operations for Owatonna, Minn., schools; Teri Staloch, assistant superintendent for Osseo, Minn., schools; and Greg Winter, superintendent of Braham, Minn., schools. The field was narrowed from 24 candidates.