Duluth Public Schools officials reacted Friday to a report about the assistant superintendent’s drunken-driving record as reported by a Duluth TV station.
Duluth Public Schools assistant superintendent Jeff Horton, 38, was convicted of careless driving in June 2009, driving while impaired in November 2013 and another DWI in July 2017.
Horton served no time for his careless driving conviction. For his first DWI, he was sentenced to wear an electronic home monitoring device for 29 days as well as two years probation. For the most recent DWI, Horton served 19 days in jail with 16 served on work/school release, and was sentenced to four years probation.
Horton told the News Tribune Friday he was very transparent from the start of his hiring process about his criminal record.
“I offered up anything and everything I could have about myself to give them a good picture because I wanted to make sure that Duluth knew who I was as a person, who I was as a leader, so I could go through the process and know that Duluth was the right fit for me and I was the right fit for Duluth,” Horton said.
Horton was hired in July 2018 and has been with the Duluth school district for over a year now as assistant superintendent. He previously worked at the St. Cloud school district where he served as the director of student services. Before that, Horton served as a principal for the Pine Island school district, the assistant executive director for the Twin Cities German Immersion School and a teacher for South Washington County Park High School.
Horton was one of several people interviewed for the position by a hiring committee that consisted of community members, teachers and administrators, including then-board chair David Kirby.
According to superintendent Bill Gronseth, the information regarding Horton’s past was shared with Kirby to determine how to move forward.
“While I do not condone this type of behavior, it does not preclude people from being successful,” Gronseth said in a statement. “As Dr. (Tony) Kinkel from the Minnesota Board of School Administrators shared, sometimes people that have had struggles in their own lives are able to help others through struggles as well.”
Helping people with their struggles as well is exactly what Horton said he has tried to do with the knowledge he gained from his own experiences.
“I can honestly say that I’m a better leader today than I was before that happened,” Horton said. “While I wouldn’t wish a circumstance like that to teach you a life lesson, you learn a lot from your toughest moments.”
Horton said he is in a unique position to help others who might be experiencing chemical health and mental health issues.
“And I try to do my best to serve those people,” he said.
One of the ways Horton said he’s done that is by having the opportunity to work with co-located mental health services in other districts throughout his career. He said he was also able to support getting chemical health, licensed drug and alcohol counselors at his previous district, as well as supporting a recovery school at the St. Cloud Area Learning Center.
“Though I can’t speak to all the issues, I’ve definitely been able in Duluth to take my experiences to support others getting through their hard times,” Horton said. “I’ve been supporting people by helping them get through the pain and helping them see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Fox 21 reported on Horton’s criminal history Thursday, and though Horton said he took issue with various portions of the report, he said he's trying to turn it into a positive outcome.
“It’s unfortunate that’s how the story had to come out, but if we can use this as an opportunity to have a public conversation about how we’re helping kids or we’re helping adults with these things, I think that then that’s a good thing,” Horton said. “That can be a silver lining, having a broader conversation.”
Horton admitted that he shouldn’t have been driving when he received his DWIs.
“I did the math and I waited around,” he recalled about his most recent DWI. “I wasn’t even planning on driving that night. I had alternative plans, but I was just in a situation where that wouldn’t work out and so I ended up driving and I shouldn’t have driven.”
Horton said he thought he had everything figured out after his first DWI, but he was wrong.
“I honestly thought I was OK to drive. But I wasn’t,” he said. “The truth is that you can’t just have one. You just can’t because you just don’t know how it's going to affect you.”
Horton said he doesn't have a drinking problem and that he went through a chemical dependency evaluation and it was determined he did not need any further participation in programs.
"Has alcohol caused issues in my life, yes," Horton said. "But it's never been part of my daily life."
School Board members speak out
Kirby, who served on the hiring committee, was the only board member at the time of Horton’s hiring that knew about his criminal history, but all district hiring practices in place at the time were followed, Kirby said.
“Mr. Horton was selected for his extensive background in education as a teacher, principal and district administrator as well as for his knowledge of student achievement strategies, and experience in student culture,” Kirby said in a statement.
Some School Board members said Friday they were not made aware of Horton’s background check results before he was hired.
“I was disappointed that the information wasn’t shared with the whole School Board and I think we need to make some changes with transparency in the hiring process, which I intend to do if I’m given the chance,” said Alanna Oswald, who is up for re-election in November.
Outgoing board member Nora Sandstad also expressed disappointment that the rest of the board wasn’t informed of Horton’s past.
“We did just make changes to our background checks and hiring process policies, but I feel like it shouldn’t specifically say that this type of information needs to be shared with the whole School Board. It should just be automatic,” Sandstad said to News Tribune. “When issues come up in a background check of someone being recommended to be hired, those issues should be disclosed to the board without needing a policy to say so.”
Board member Sally Trnka also said she wants to see more transparency.
"I am empathetic to those who struggle with addiction but hires at this level need to be transparent not only to the board but to the public as well," Trnka said in a statement to the News Tribune. "The decision to rush the approval of assistant superintendent Horton's hire leaves me very disappointed in those who knew, and even more so for those children and families who look for leadership from the district. Moving forward, I will continue to advocate for transparency around these processes."
Board member Jill Lofald said she also was not aware of Horton’s criminal history, but she puts her trust in the process.
“As a member of the board I'm always working to find the balance between inserting my role as board member into areas that are trusted to our district leadership; hiring processes and offering contracts are areas most school boards do not partake in except to approve contracts as a routine practice,” Lofald said in a statement to the News Tribune. “The superintendent, board chair and human resource director did give this hire deep consideration and made the decision to hire, one that was in their authority to do.”
Board members Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and Josh Gorham did not respond to requests for comment by press time Friday night.