Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14

18 Jun

With a meeting that fell five minutes short of four hours, the ISD 709 School Board endured a grueling, painful marathon on Tuesday night. I’m only going to comment briefly on the meeting at the end of this post. Part of me is very frustrated that I have to do this, and that the circus surrounding one man overpowers the interest in the far more pressing affairs looming over the District. But it’s impossible to understand everything else that happened on Tuesday night without the overall context.

That looming bit of context, of course, was last week’s headline news: Member Art Johnston is under review for alleged improper conduct. I was unable to attend the special meeting due to the frustratingly short notice given to the public, and I have some reservations about saying too much, given that my only sources of information are hearsay and a paper of which I have a rather ambivalent opinion. Still, my initial reaction was much in line with the Duluth News Tribune’s editorial over the weekend: is this really necessary?

There were eight public speakers in Member Johnston’s defense, and in addition to a lot of other noise, they put forward one key criticism, best articulated by Ms. Denette Lynch: it seemed like a very poor use of the District’s resources to investigate something that seemed like a personal dispute between Member Johnston, Chair Miernicki, and Supt. Gronseth. The majority of the group came from the familiar crowd of Johnston supporters, that curious coalition of the sincere anti-Red Plan crowd and people who are affronted by any spending on education whatsoever. Member Welty had to talk one out of displaying his large “Fire Gronseth” sign, and the crowd of Johnston supporters, numbering perhaps twenty, whooped and laughed and cheered throughout the speeches. (Chair Miernicki made no effort to stop them, which would normally bother me no matter the topic, but given the delicacy of the power dynamic at play here, it was probably the right decision. Indeed, after five months of being rather unimpressed with Chair Miernicki’s leadership, I thought he started to come into his own on Tuesday night.)

Two speakers did stand out from the crowd. One, DFL activist Brad Clifford, put forth a broader defense of minority rights and the benefits of debate and dissention, quoting several prominent liberal politicians and saying the votes of the citizens of District Four (in favor of Johnston) ought to be respected. The other was Ms. Jane Bushey, Member Johnston’s partner, whose emotional speech jived with the general outline of the Reader account. She said “lies, accusations, and assumptions” from a Duluth East administrator had led to a request that she be moved elsewhere in the district, which HR had unquestioningly accepted. “I just want to do my job,” she said, condemning the “bullies” who were out to get her. Member Johnston’s conflict of interest in the affair and “abuse related to a staff member” constituted two of the charges against him, and are apparently the reason he sought out Chair Miernicki and Supt. Gronseth for a scolding at the Duluth East graduation.

Another charge that got plenty of mention was the alleged assault, as people indignantly wondered where the police report was. The problem here, I gather, is the awful legalese used in the accusations. In my reading of the charges, no one is technically accusing Member Johnston assault. He’s being accused of something that falls under the umbrella of “alleged assault or otherwise improper conduct.” Ditto for the “racist” accusation: the complete claim is “alleged racist or otherwise improper comments.” These are horrifically worded categories that—I presume—make the accusations sound far worse than they actually are. Knowing what I do of the incident, Member Johnston is accused of the “otherwise improper” actions. Any other claim couldn’t stand on two legs, and I doubt Supt. Gronseth and Chair Miernicki are dumb enough to push that far. Instead, they thought highly charged comments and apparent conflict of interest were enough to cross the line and launch the inquest.

The “otherwise improper” categories are obviously a legal grey area. Without knowing more, I still stand by my initial assessment: this seems like a needless distraction, and one that only empowers Member Johnston’s narrative of victimhood at the hands of the rest of the Board. What’s laughable about all of this, really, is Member Johnston’s powerlessness; sure, he can cause a stink and badger people with his questions, but when it comes to actual policy influence, his achievements are minimal. The investigation gives him a soapbox to gain more attention, drags out old fights in the negative PR, and works against the general trend of the past few months, in which Member Johnston had been more agreeable than in the past.

Still, two things struck me over the course of this meeting: the number of times that I agreed with the thrust of Member Johnston’s questions and comments (which was fairly often) and the fact that, in spite of that, he still had me cringing in exasperation every time he turned on his light. Before the meeting, I had some pre-written language ready that would have mounted a much more vigorous defense of his rights. But, after Tuesday’s display, I had to throw it out. I cannot use it in good conscience.

Part of this is a style problem. Brevity is not one of Member Johnston’s strong suits. He trails on and on, repeats himself unnecessarily, and when he doesn’t get answers he wants, he will continue to ask questions, knowing full well he won’t get the desired response. He seemed to relish every such opportunity on Tuesday, thus leading to the meeting’s absurd length. It’s his way of proving a point. It isn’t uncivil, per se, but it comes across as domineering and tiresome. It lacks all perspective, and it wears people down and makes them feel like they’re being scolded. Sure, he makes occasional overtures to finding common ground, but his comments are suffused with such a lack of trust of anyone else that it’s hard to find them wholly sincere. Again, this is not all his fault, but one wonders at what point the well becomes too poisoned to be of any use.

Moreover, he has an ally on the Board in Member Welty who, despite similar voting patterns, comes off entirely differently. He’s eloquent, and manages to maintain a sharp focus on the issues that most concern him (namely, the threat of standard operating debt) without belaboring the point. A well-honed opposition message has considerable potential, and based on Member Welty’s success, might even stand to do well in elections in places other than the most anti-establishment district in the city. It just isn’t correct for Member Johnston to act as if he is not part of his own problem.

Member Johnston’s failures don’t absolve the rest of the Board of its shortcomings. On Tuesday night, it came to light that he and Member Welty were having trouble getting things on the agenda, while majority Board members were not. While the Administration deserves some leeway in agenda creation if the items in question have already been beaten to death, the “minority rights” argument does pull significant weight. I voted for Harry Welty; I like good debate and serious questions. I do find it frustrating that the Administration can’t answer all of his questions, particularly the ones pertaining to the District’s long-term finances. He needs some people to work with him.

Sadly, the only one he has right now is someone whose personality has grown so large that it overwhelms everything else that happens. Despite the loss of an agreeable vote, I suspect Member Welty might actually be able to make more headway without the specter of Member Johnston’s outbursts looming over the Board. Member Johnston may think he’s shedding light in dark places, but in the end, his relentless questioning only serves to obscure the most pressing issues. He has got to learn how to choose his battles. His reaction is a microcosm of the whole anti-Red Plan movement that got him elected in the first place: it’s an eclectic group unified only by its opposition to something, and when it finds itself stonewalled by an imperious majority, we’re left with a lot of cathartic primal screaming that drowns out substance, leading to inevitable fracturing as everyone beats their own drums. The movement stays in the headlines, yet it achieves not a single one of its objectives. They’d rather go down kicking and screaming than be so audacious as to imagine a different paradigm. The few who hazard steps in that direction, like Member Welty, find themselves rather lonely.

In a rather fitting paradox, a discussion over The Civility Project’s nine tools of civility introduced for re-affirmation by the Board illustrated this problem best. Member Welty made a few reasonable critiques of the “subjectivity” of the whole thing, but concluded by saying he hoped it would help the District “find its better angels.” Member Johnston, after hitting a few similar notes, piled on from there, condemning left and right before attempting to haul Ms. Anita Stech, an advocate for the Civility Project, up to the podium for questioning, asking this poor woman to play judge and jury on past incidents in which he thought members of the Board had been uncivil to him. I agree that the project could be fairly empty in content if people are too locked into their views to take its points in good faith. But to expect a couple of community volunteers to wade into this mess is self-serving, and misses the point completely. (The parties in question would also be accused of partisanship the second they weighed in. Do we seriously want some self-appointed Civility Police roaming the city? Do people honestly think that would end well?) The whole special resolution was a reminder of a guideline, not a binding legal contract. (On the other end of the spectrum, Members Westholm and Seliga-Punyko raised some silly objections to Member Johnston’s ultimate attempt to include “honesty and care for other Board members” on the list, worrying about hijacking the civility people’s message. Thankfully, the majority of the Board saw that this was not worth fighting over, and passed the amendment 5-2 before the whole thing was approved unanimously.)

Perhaps this critique singles out Member Johnston when someone such as Member Seliga-Punyko is just as partisan, if not more so. She, however, has the luxury of being in the majority; she can bask in her victories without undue stress. To be an effective legislator, Member Johnston can’t just throw bombs; he needs to be able to work with his fellow Board members. To his credit, he’s tried at times. But he can’t revert to old form—not even when he gets accused of things on potentially trumped-up charges. That’s the burden of being the principled member of the minority: no matter how tempting it is to lash back, one must rise above the fray. If he can, excellent; let’s put this tiff behind us and build a better District. If not, I can’t say I’ll shed any tears if he gets the boot from the Board. He may not be the man who pulls the trigger, but he most definitely will have supplied the ammunition.

One last point: Member Johnston also seems to labor under the pretension that the incivility directed toward him is among the causes for the District’s enrollment struggles. Sure, the negative headlines don’t help, but on the list of reasons why people don’t enroll their kids in ISD 709, the plight of one cantankerous Board member is very, very far down the list. Another useful point to minority members who want to advance their cause: never over-inflate your own role in the drama. Your critics may want to make you (and not your platform) the story. Don’t let them. In doing so, you hand them the win. It’s not about you.

***

So, what did the Board do on Tuesday besides play out a drama over the representative of the Fourth District? It passed a budget, for one thing. Member Welty voted against it because of his lack of information on the long-term picture, and there was some aimless talk over whether it is better to use increased assets to rebuild the reserve fund (as Member Welty suggested) or simply injected straight back into the schools (Member Johnston). There was the aforementioned flap over how to get things on the agenda, with the majority voting down Johnston and Welty 5-2 in their effort to change things.

There was a constructive discussion in the Education Committee report on the evolving policies for students who have been bullied or sexually harassed, and Member Westholm was pleased to announce that staffing levels were the most stable he’d seen in all his years. (That’s a long time.) Member Johnston, upset with how an Administration re-shuffle had opened up the curriculum director position, voted against that particular item, which otherwise passed 6-1, and he got in his usual shtick about enrollment numbers. There was a repeat of the debate over the number of people needed to call a special meeting, with the same result as at the May meeting. Member Johnston also asked why a large number of Piedmont teachers had apparently applied to transfer schools, and Supt. Gronseth replied with a long list of reasons, from changes in leadership to opportunities in administration that had opened up. That wrapped up the meeting, a few minutes shy of 10:30. Why I do this to myself, I’m not entirely sure.

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2 Responses to “Art Johnston Under Siege: Duluth School Board Notes, 6/17/14”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Marion Barry, Art Johnston, and the Politics of Personality | A Patient Cycle - November 24, 2014

    […] in the end, I’m left exactly where I started when these accusations first came out. I remain sympathetic to Johnston’s willingness to raise serious questions and (based on what I […]

  2. Art Johnston Prevails | A Patient Cycle - May 13, 2015

    […] At the risk of saying I-told-you-so, this is what I wrote immediately after the incident last June: […]

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