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Anatomy of a Failed School Board

It's time to break the silence on what happened on the Duluth School Board and look at the individual parts of the board that contributed to this ugly episode.  The followings are all hypothesis on what was happening.  We will likely never know their side of the  story because they have all been mum (except as noted below).

All the players in the recent fiasco were Superitendent Gronseth, these five school boards members and the Duluth News Tribune.  They tried, and failed, to removed an elected school board member.  What was really going on behind the scene? What really precipitated this? What past actions of these players led up to this aborted removal attempt which cost the school (and taxpayers) $250,000 and was a public relations disaster?

Superintendent William Gronseth

There are two schools of thought concerning Bill Gronseth's involvement:  1.) He was just a pawn and was either forced or cowed into being part of this nastiness by board members Seliga Punyko, Meirnicki, Loeffler-Kemp, and Harrala; or 2.) he was the ringleader.

1). The pawn theory: 

Gronseth is a nice guy and nice guys don't do this sort of thing. Gronseth is a smart guy--he had to have known that this would be public relationship disaster to the point of impacting the schools--so he would have never iniatated this on his own.  Gronseth used to state to me that he never got involved with Board politics; he used to state that he enjoyed our many conversations (prior to the legal action) but that other board members' were very critical of him for even talking to me.   He's stated that he would cringe whenever member Seliga Punkyko would come around and throw her weight around him and his staff.  His statements to the "independent investigator" stated that he was never "shoved" by me. It is conceivable that he could have been threatened to be fired by the Board majority if he didn't cooperate in The Purging.

But, if he was just a pawn, it doesn't show good leadership on his part.

2. The ringleader theory: 

Gronseth is the Superintendent and is on the top of the power structure of the Duluth Public Schools.  His annaul salary is $168,000, while the Board members make only $7,000. Superintendents hold the power and are very influential and he could have refused to participate in an obvious dubious activity like The Purge.

But Gronseth more than fully cooperated in The Purge:  he directed his two highest paid staff, Tim Sworsky and Bill Hanson, to fully participate.  Sworsky initiated the meetings and wrote up the justifications (May 2014).  And Sworsky made very public and derogatory statements about my family in typical character assassination style and Gronseth refused to do anything to stop it.  

Bill Hanson was an active participant in all the Court proceedings in Federal Court and all of the other legal activities required to sustain this massive legal action.  While the Board could have used the threat of firing Gronseth, Sworsky and Hanson only answer to Gronseth, not the Board. So only Gronseth could have directed his staff to not only participate, but to take the initiative. 

Gronseth repeatedly refused to participate in any outside mediation attempted to be arranged by Northwoods Communications. 

Gronseth fully participated in the legal action, and he refused to distance himself from it, or ever stated that he didn't support the allegations. 

Gronseth refused to call off the Principals in East High School that were endlessly harassing Jane (my partner and who worked at East High School).  This became acute after I was re-elected in January of 2014.  It is fair to assume that Gronseth was directing the harassment or at least tolerating it by "winking and nodding."

But what would have been Gronseth's motive to be the ringleader? I have long been critical of the school's fiscal management, its dropping enrollment, and its poor graduation rates and test scores.  It is not a coincidence that The Purge started shortly after I published a column (May 2014) asking for an investigation into alleged contract and policy violations concerning $12 million of change orders to Johnson Controls, Inc., that Gronseth had hid from public and school board members' knowledge. 

Gronseth has a propensity to give false information whenever it protects his reputation and this was just more of the same.

Gronseth has done nothing to mend the schism that The Purge caused, even after the District lost their legal battle and new members have been elected to the Board.  If this isn't a sign of a ringleader, it is a sign of poor leadership. 

Looking at the available evidence, the Ringleader theory appears to be the most likely.

Annie Harala

 The only person claiming to have witnessed the “shoving” was Annie Harala.  And she was the only person in the DECC auditorium, with an estimated 2,000 people, that witnessed anything.  But yet, everyone copy-catted her by claiming they believed her.  Even Gronseth says he wasn’t “shoved”.

 When Ms. Harala ran for school board four years ago, her motto was “being positive”.  Her tenure has been marked with nothing positive. Soon after she was elected, she went after me and was key in trying to remove me from my elected position. That continued throughout the lawsuit.  Even after the District lost the lawsuit, her demeanor at school board meetings is arrogant and nasty, and she constantly interrupts anything that I say that she might disagree with.

 Luckily she has decided not to re-run for election.  Of the five school board member that went after me, only one is left: Rosie Loeffler-Kemp.

Mike Meirnicki

 Miernicki was another retired teacher.  I’ve heard his nickname to be “baboon face” due to his face turning red and him being apoplectic whenever I would speak at board meeting.  His facial expressions were classic.  

He seemed to be one of those teachers with the “teacher pet” syndrome:  if you weren’t one of his pets, he would do what he could to destroy you.

He did not re-run.

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp

 Rosie is the only remaining school board member that orchestrated the Purge with Superintendent Gronseth. She is up for reelection.  Support her opponent Kurt Kuehn in District 1.  see https://www.facebook.com/votekurtkuehn  and  www.kurtkuehn.com

Bill Westholm

He was elected as a retired Principal in the school.  He added little to any discussion. He was easily used by the rest of the board when they would pander to his having a law degree to give credibility to their legal action in their failed attempt  try remove me. He always voted with the majority and never dissented on anything. He did not rerun.

Duluth News Tribune

None of this would have happened without the acquiescence and poor reporting of the Duluth News Tribune (DNT). Despite having no credible evidence, the DNT zealously heaped on  their long running prejudice against me and fed their (few)  true believers readers with zeal, prejudice,  and sensational journalism.  Their reporting was so bad that it bordered, if not crossed, the threshold of “reckless disregard” for facts; and with “malice aforethought”; professional misconduct; and likely violated the journalisms code of ethics.

Tellingly, the DNT reporter has stated to me that she thought Annie Harala (the only witness to the “shoving”) is an amazing person and it is inconceivable that she would lie about anything.  (She also has stated that the school administration is “the experts” in everything to do with the school and reports everything they say as beyond question).

During this “reporting”, boiler-plate paragraphs were repeated ad-nauseam, and anything contrary to her narrative was put at the bottom of the article, if included at all. There appeared to be no questioning of any facts that were fed her.  This went on for over a year with front page coverage.

When the charges were finally dropped by the District’s attorneys (and I won), the DNT did one small article buried in the paper and has done no follow-up.

Nothing of substance, except their narrative, was ever reported on.

For example:

1) The "report" commissioned by the District was illogical, grossly biased,  and based totally on hearsay (no oaths were taken);

2) That no criminal, civil, or any police reports were ever filled against me;

3) My  freedom of speech for an elected official was being denied me by the District;

4) The constitutional questions of having a school board majority attempting to remove a duly elected member and overturning an election of the 4th District voters;

5) The estimated $250,000 legal cost; and the enormous opportunity cost to the District and City;

6) The role of an elected school board member;

7) The fact that the District and board majority have refused to take any steps that could mend this schism;

8) The District continued to harass my family.

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