In the beginning, God created happy talk and smiles.
When Doug Hasler, the most recent Chief Financial Officer for the Duluth Public Schools, was hired two years ago, the school board was invited over to his new house on Woodland Avenue for ice cream and to meet his beautiful family and children.
We talked about all the cool things to do in Duluth, the best places to buy winter clothes. The skills that everyone brought to the table were flowing around like the ice cream floats.
Hasler was a breath of fresh air, at least briefly. Everyone was hopeful that his good nature, his inquisitiveness, his legal and financial background would pry open the tightly locked black box of the District’s budget.
But God knew that besides happy talk, the Duluth Schools’ budget was also in need of a savior.
In the beginning, Hasler courteously responded to requests for financial information. For the first time in ten years, detailed budgets for all 13 schools were actually given to the school board and the public.
Requests for data, such as the hundreds of thousands of dollars billed by the superintendent’s lawyers, were made available to the board with the proper warnings that personal data would have to be redacted before releasing it to the public.
As the Hasler Era reached its zenith a year ago, he started changing. The door to public data was slammed shut after multiple school budgets showed disparities in compensatory revenue, earmarked for low-performing students, and negative fund balances depriving the classroom of needed money.
The nails were hammered back onto the black box. Hasler was reduced to a caricature of droning obfuscation, covering for his boss—the superintendent who got us in this financial mess in the first place.
Hasler’s happy smiles were replaced with frowns. He never looked you in the eye anymore, until you wondered what he was seeing on the wall behind you. It made you keep looking over your shoulder, wondering if something was after all of us.
Hasler was hired by Gronseth, without school board input, and eventually, Hasler became just like Gronseth. The end was near.
On June 18, Hasler was put on paid administrative leave. Gronseth asked for school board support to get rid of him, and our obeisant school board, of course, took all the blame for the fiasco by publicly offering Hasler a half year’s pay of $63,000, and another $12,000 just for good riddance.
Hasler could not be reached for comment, and the School District did not respond to requests for comment as to whether Hasler took the money and ran.
How does the end happen? Behind closed doors. Contrary to those who claim this is to protect the privacy of the innocent, having been to many of such closed meetings, I can tell you the information black-out is nearly always done to hide the guilty.
I’m not implying that Hasler was the guilty one here. Like other victims of ISD709, his career has been ruined. He paid his price for coming to Duluth. What will happen to his house and family? No one cares. He was thrown under the proverbial school bus.
Such closed meetings are ugly, but highly predictable. The people in the room are gloating in their power to destroy with their hidden hands. You can expect to hear a very serious, shaming talk by Gronseth’s lawyer, either in person or via conference call. The lawyer will likely mansplain how the school district has been jeopardized by the alleged behavior—for which there is probably no documentation or any context or comparisons.
The Ms. Grundys of the school board will chime in with how appalled they are and that we have no choice—we must execute the wishes of the superintendent. Anyone who might disagree will be given a talking-to. Other juicy tidbits and character defects of the errant individual will be expounded on.
And of course the board is given a stern warning that none of these details can ever be told to anyone outside the meeting. If anyone violates this cone of silence, they might be the next suspect.
Probably by design, such silence breeds rumors that no one can publicly correct. Outside, you will hear tragically flattering statements like, “We can’t tell you why we are doing this, but if you knew all that we know, you would do what we had to do.”
Closed meetings are a way to keep complete control over the process and over what information gets out about it. One of the most ugly cases occurred to Gronseth’s predecessor, I.V. Foster.
Remember, I.V. Foster? He was the African-American superintendent hired with much fanfare to help address the achievement gap for kids of color in Duluth. He beat out Gronseth for the position in 2011.
Then-School Board Member Gary Glass was a strong supporter of hiring Foster, but as soon as Glass announced his retirement and Mike Miernicki and Bill Westholm were elected, then-Board Chair Judy Seliga Punyko sent word around that Foster would be gone. We never saw him again.
Another closed meeting, another ruined career. He lasted a whole five months. That time, the character assassination kicked in big time. I was even told by a reporter at the time that Foster was being privately criticized for dating white women. Yes, this is one of the reasons that young African-Americans call Duluth the Alabama of the North.
Gronseth was hired by the board automatically, without outreach to any other candidates. It’s become a running joke that Gronseth applies for jobs that he never gets—he never had to apply for his current job in Duluth.
Perhaps he’d like to apply for Chief Financial Officer? I hear they’re hiring.
Art Johnston served on the Duluth School Board representing the Fourth District from 2010 to 2017.