The Duluth School Board next week will reconsider its decision to remove member Art Johnston, and possibly censure him instead.
A School Board statement released by the district on Tuesday reads: “While the board believes that Johnston’s misconduct is sufficient grounds for his removal, Johnston’s subsequent federal litigation against ISD 709 and five board members has the potential to result in a drawn-out, time-consuming and expensive legal process which would distract from focusing on the primary mission of our schools, which is the education and well-being of our students. …
“The Duluth School Board will consider rescinding the removal of Johnston and replacing it with formal censure at a special School Board meeting to be held next week.”
Johnston said Tuesday night that he’s thankful for the board’s move.
“It was a horrible time in my life that’s going to be over,” he said.
The upcoming decision follows a second mediation session held Monday in St. Paul; the session had been ordered last week by a U.S. District Court judge in Duluth.
Johnston - assuming a decision reversal - said the news was a “victory” for those who want a transparent government.
“The writing is on the wall that a School Board can’t go after somebody because they disagree,” he said, calling the allegations against him - which prompted the removal decision - “baseless distractions.” Johnston - serving his second term on the board - filed a lawsuit in federal court in March alleging violation of his First Amendment rights related to the board's decision to oust him.
The School Board based its decision to remove Johnston on the results of a months-long independent investigation it approved in June, meant to look into several allegations against him made by three of its members. Those included assault or otherwise improper conduct, abuse of authority, conflict of interest as related to a district employee and violation of the board's code of ethics. The investigator found most of the allegations to have merit.
Johnston alleges that his First and 14th Amendment rights were violated by the board's December decision to remove him. The lawsuit says that the district's code of ethics - used in part to justify the removal decision - is unconstitutional, citing freedom of speech rights.
Judge Michael J. Davis said at last week’s hearing that Johnston has a right to speak his mind, while also noting he shouldn’t use the First Amendment to protect other “unethical” behaviors that could be grounds for removal.
Reasons for removal included Johnston's involvement in his district-employed partner's work dispute and his behavior toward former board Chairman Mike Miernicki and Superintendent Bill Gronseth. He is said to have shoved Gronseth after East High School's graduation last year and to have that same night confronted Miernicki in anger, behavior deemed by the investigator to be "threatening," "abusive" and "intimidating." Johnston’s public criticism of Gronseth was also part of the reason for removal.
Johnston - who reiterated Judge Davis’s point about his right to speak freely, also agreed with Davis’ statement that the First Amendment shouldn’t be used to cloak unethical behavior. He hadn’t exhibited any, he said, noting “the other charges have no merit,” and would have been deemed as such through the court process.
Board member Bill Westholm said next week’s decision would not be a matter of victory or defeat, as Johnston characterized it.
“This is about resolving issues that exist,” he said.
Board chairwoman Judy Seliga-Punkyo said Johnston’s “misconduct, his assaultive behavior and interference with a personnel matter are grounds for removal. It’s frustrating he filed a lawsuit to stop it.”
But the school district, she said, if the board continued the process of removal, “was looking at a lot of money that would come out of the classroom” because of the lawsuit.
Member Annie Harala said the board investigation that led to the eventual lawsuit was about due process to look at “serious” issues.
“We did what we needed to do,” she said, but now the matter has become a “distraction.”
If the board decides to retain Johnston, she said, she expects it will continue to do the work it’s tasked with, in the same way it has since the process began.
The board statement says that it’s expected Johnston will dismiss his federal lawsuit, “for which he is seeking monetary damages.”
Johnston said a decision to keep him on the board would make his lawsuit “moot.”
As for possibly being censured, Johnston said it amounted to “name-calling” and “bullying.”
“I will, of course, fight that; it’s nothing but words,” he said. “But what are we going to do in the future? How will we move forward as a board?”
An administrative hearing in which a retired judge would have heard both sides before offering a decision on the ouster of Johnston - which the board wouldn’t have been required to abide by - has been postponed.