The Duluth School Board has a new ethics code, following a board member alleging in a lawsuit that the prior code violated his First Amendment rights.

The board approved Tuesday in a 4-2 vote a new code of ethics based on a model policy from the Minnesota School Boards Association and state school administrator group that included revisions by a district-retained attorney.

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Board members Art Johnston and Harry Welty opposed the new ethics code; Johnston's attempt to introduce revisions to the current policy - including a section disallowing participation in district issues involving family members - failed to pass Tuesday.

"My modified code of ethics will move us forward. This allows us to not be imprisoned in the past," Johnston said.

Johnston sued the district and all board members except Welty after a December decision to remove him - a decision based on the results of an outside investigation that in part indicated he violated the ethics code in relation to things he had said publicly about board members and district employees, and for work-related advocacy of his district-employed partner. He was recently censured instead of removed after a federal court hearing in which the judge sent the sides back to mediation.

Johnston said he was concerned he and Welty were being targeted by the inclusion in the new code of a section on modeling civility, saying that the board simply disagreed with their comments.

Johnston and Welty also took issue with a section that said confidential information protected by law must be guarded, along with penalties that ranged from censure to removal from the board.

"I have little doubt this is about me," Welty said.

Welty called the section "a threat to my tenure on the board" and alleged that the district-retained attorney added the penalties to "put a gun to my head."

Johnston pointed out that his attorney in the lawsuit against the district argued that the only way the board could remove a board member is if penalties are included in the ethics code. The board, Johnston alleged, was including the penalties "to go after Mr. Welty and me" and the penalties should be removed if that wasn't the case.

Wage increases

In other business, the board approved increases in hourly wages to meet the state's new minimum wage of $9 per hour, effective Aug. 1, in addition to increasing substitute teacher rates.

The board is expected to consider at its August meeting whether to approve setting the hourly pay for minimum-wage employees in the district at $1 above the minimum wage.

In introducing the proposal, Johnston said increasing the hourly pay by $1 would acknowledge the importance of the district's lowest-paid employees.

Board members agreed that they would like to pay higher wages, but were concerned about its effect on the school district's budget. Bill Hanson, district business services director, estimated that it would cost the district about $30,000 to increase the hourly pay of all minimum-wage employees by $1, but a more concrete financial outlook is expected to ready by the board's August meeting.