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Duluth Public Schools: Political, Budget, and Community Issues

 

We won again!  Jan. 15, 2019                

Johnston Settles Data Practice Act Lawsuit against Duluth Schools for $55,000

 “The right to speak and the right to print, without the right to know, are pretty empty,” Congressman Cross, author of the federal Freedom of Information Act

In a compromise of disputed claims against the Duluth School for violations of the  Minnesota Government Data Practice Act, former school board member Art Johnston has settled his case for $55,000.

This is  the largest civil settlements relating to data practice claims in Minnesota.

On March 2, 2018, Johnston filed four data requests with the Duluth Public Schools.  He requested data on $12 million of change orders that went to Johnson Controls, Inc. for construction management;  data about $16 million of unsold excess property; subject data; and data practices information.

The Duluth Schools did not reply.  On July 30, the Minnesota Department of Administration issued an Advisory Opinion that the Duluth School did not respond appropriately to Johnston’s data requests.

The school district still did not respond.

On August 21, Johnston filed a civil lawsuit against the Duluth Schools for willfully violating the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act, requesting the data, and requesting exemplary damages.

The school district finally provided the data in September which Johnston is reviewing.

“Not only had we claimed that the Duluth Schools violated the law, our lawsuit had claimed that they WILLFULLY violated the law”, said Art Johnston.

The Data Practices law allows up to $15,000 in exemplary damages for every willful violation.

In an amended, now dismissed complaint, Johnston claimed 20 more willful data violations, and violations of data retention laws.

Johnston agreed to receive $55,000 in compromise for dismissing the lawsuit with prejudice;  the Duluth School does not admit wrong doing; and the Duluth School affirmed its obligations and agreed to follow all requirements outlined in the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act in future requests.

 


Those Who Are Allowed To Speak Hold the Power

by Art Johnston, columist for the Zenith News, Jan. 17, 2019 

When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, growing up in a little rural community in northern Minnesota, I recall my father and uncle talking about how important it was that meetings were run with Robert’s Rules of Order, a guide to conducting meetings and making group decisions.

Robert’s Rules is the most widely used parliamentary procedure in the United States. It’s based on two tenets: (1) The will of the majority will prevail, but only after (2) the rights of the minority are protected and given an opportunity for full and free discussion.

My uncle was an English teacher and the only person in the county who knew parliamentary procedure. He was always asked to help at church, political, and service organization meetings.

Of course I was too little to have a clue what they were talking about. It all seemed like a bunch of social alchemy that only old people could stomach.

As I got older and started doing adult things like protesting the Vietnam War and organizing food co-ops, the chaos of meetings make me think about my uncle and about the benefits of well-run meetings.

As I got more mature, I started noticing that the most effective of my union brethren would bring a copy of Robert’s Rules to meetings and read from it when they were making motions from the floor. The chair had a copy, and there was even a stone-faced parliamentarian sitting next to him who never spoke but was consulted in whispers by the chair. Just like in Congress, there were recorders to transcribe every word. Everything ran smoothly and everyone got their say, though not always their way. It was becoming clear to me that Robert’s Rules of Order was an antidote to tyranny.

As I got even older, I lost some of my wisdom and ran for the Duluth School Board and won. Having been here for a few years, it was obvious that well-run meetings did not exist in this town. Just like in the local book Class Action (movie North Country) "might" was still the only right in Duluith. At my first board meeting, I made the front page of the Duluth News Tribune for (heaven forbid!) quoting Robert’s Rules of Order.

My mentor in running for the school board was Duluth educator, activist, and African-American icon Maureen Booth. After board meetings, Maureen would call me up and talk about the tyranny of majority and give me advice about Robert’s Rules. When she was younger, like in my youth, proper meeting procedure was an integral part of English education. 

If you look at the membership of the National Association of Parliamentarians, you will find an inordinate number of African Americans. Maureen told me it is because they have to use proper meeting procedure to level the playing field in fighting systemic racism. 

At my first private meeting with then-Superintendent Keith Dixon and then-School Board Chair Tim Grover, they told me I had to do whatever they told me to do. I asked them what any normal elected official would say in response to that: “Are you on crack?” 

They were flabbergasted that they couldn’t control me. I kept waiting for an offer of hush-money from Johnson Controls, who had their $380 million school contract, but I guess I wasn’t reverent enough to be trusted by corporate bureaucrats.

Like all dictators, immutable power isn’t enough; any discussion or freethinking by the minority must be stopped. For dictators, truth is like cancer—if you don’t stop it early, it will destroy everything. 

This was evident at every school board meeting. The board started asking police officers to attend meetings. On October 19, 2010, Loren Martell, a mild-mannered member of the public, tried to use his three minutes addressing the board to criticize Tim Grover for reneging on his election promise to oppose the Red Plan.

Grover hit the ceiling and angrily ordered the police officer to arrest Martell. Amazingly, she dutifully complied by handcuffing him and hauling him away.

At one meeting, Dixon added a discussion item by inviting Robert Vokes, the only parliamentarian in Duluth. Former Member Ann Wasson spoke for the board, expressing her grave objection to him being there and told him that he and his presentation weren’t welcome.

Back in 2010, the District’s attorney, Beth Storaasli, attended board meetings, for which she was paid over $500. What she did for that money, no one knew. She never said anything and no one ever asked her anything—until I started bringing up Robert’s Rules. Then she was asked her opinion on how to counter me.

At first, Storaasli had no clue. Then she started showing up with her own brand-spanking-new copy of Robert’s Rules. She would furiously thumb through it to find an answer, usually to no avail. Finally, someone in that infamous leadership black hole, made the decision that she was no longer needed at meetings.

The years went by and former Member Judy Seliga Punyko was elected chair. She  maliciously interrupted me nearly 40 times. Another time, she ordered the police to arrest me for trespassing at a board meeting, but the officers backed down when they found out I was an elected board member attending a scheduled meeting. 

The board thought it would be beneficial to call in the Minnesota School Board Association to conduct a workshop on getting along. Unfortunately, MSBA’s Sandy Gundlach and Katie Klanderud implied at the meeting that Robert’s Rules of Order doesn’t exist.

In vain, I tried for years to get a speaker from the Minnesota State Association of Parliamentarians to give a workshop at the MSBA annual convention. Instead, they had lawyers from one of their sponsoring law firms dumb-down and ridicule the Rules of Order and concentrate instead on how to handle unruly school board members and members of the public who might (heaven forbid!) want to address the board.

It is easy to pontificate on the nastiness of national politics, but if people paid a small fraction of attention to their own elected local boards, they would see that local politics is the microcosm and the genesis of everything wrong at the national level.

Ironically, local people could make a difference at the local level and, while that might not grab headlines on the coast, it would be a good way to start healing our communities and restoring our governments.

  


 

May 2015: We won, again!!

In 2015, Superintendent Gronseth and five Duluth School Board members initiated a process to try remove me from the Board.  The Superintendent's actions were based on nothing but nasty lies,  and was the culmination of his intimidation to stop me from talking about failures of management of the School Distict and the many problems we face.  They spent about $200,000 of taxpayer's money (classroom money) in their failed attempt to remove me. 

In our successful defense, we filed a counter lawsuit in Federal Court.  In the first half hour of our hearing, the Federal Judge made it very clear that the school could not remove me from an elected position, and he thoroughly chastised the Superintendent's attorney for their blatant attack on the democratic foundations of America--elected officials and freedom of speech.  The school ran with their tail between their legs and got nothing--but more angst from the community and more loss of student enrollment.  A case history of incompetent school leadership and incompetent school lawyers.

BEST OF ALL, the three nasty board members that went after me, knew that they would never win relection and didn't run again!!!  In two years, the six board members that denied the rights of people in Duluth to have a say in their schools are all gone.   All of Duluth is looking forward to the new school board.  See the menus on Recent Articles and Links for more information on how this worked out and the excellent articles by the Zenith and the Reader Weekly on this fiasco.

After one-and-a-half years of incompetence and waste, this is all over.

It is now time to get back to school governance by looking at the district's questionable financial management, the enormous loss of enrollment, the achievement gap, and our low graduation rates.


 

Welcome to the Truth in Duluth website! This site is maintained by Art Johnston, Duluth School Board member for the 4th District. This is a forum to get information out to Duluth citizens on current political and monetary issues in the Duluth Public Schools (ISD 709). I will occasionally report on education issues, but my emphasis is not on education or school activities, but rather the community involvement in the school board, budget impacts on the classrooms, and tax impacts. 

These views are based on factual information that I’ve learned and researched as a school board member; and based on what I've experienced as a board member.  This is intended to be a dynamic site with frequent updates on current issues and historical and current budget information. Check back after school board meetings for updates.

Despite the public school budget being almost twice as large as the Duluth City’s budget, school issues often fly under the radar screen with little reporting by the Duluth media. Investigative journalism is virtually nonexistent in Duluth. The alternative newspapers like the Zenith and Reader Weekly occasionally do articles that have excellent investigative journalism.  The TV stations are often good, but it is in 5 second sound bites. The Duluth News Tribune is about as bad as they come, and very disappointing when it comes to reporting on the schools, and when they do an "investigative article", it is down right wrong, misleading, or only is a spokesperson for the school administration--rarely do school board members' opinion even get reported on.

Citizen frustration is already high from disregard that the school has shown to citizens by denying them a vote on the Red Plan.  And its getting worse due to the  continued lack of transparency and honesty by the school district, large class sizes, reduced teacher positions, and the inevitable tax increases.   And now people are asking, "Where did all that $314 million go?"  "Why are our class sizes so large?"

This website is designed to inform Duluth citizens, education professionals, parents and students about how we got to this point and who's responsible and what we can do about it. This is meant to give a voice to reasonable decision-making based on knowledge (isn’t that what schools are all about!) and factual discussion of the issues.

If we don’t get the facts right, we’ll get the decisions wrong!



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by Dr. Radut