Bad law underpinned the School Board’s witch-hunt

December 15, 2015

Dear Zenith News:


The Zenith News cover story on November 3 [“Unredacted”] accurately portrayed the Duluth School Board and Superintendent’s failed attempt at taking me out as the sham that it was. Your intent was only to report on the unredacted Rice Report, but it opened up further questions that beg to be investigated.


As inaccurate and illogical as the Rice Report was, your accurate critique of it only scratched the surface of what was really going on with this witch-hunt. The Rice Report is largely about her opinions and conclusions. All the allegations against me were completely false. The Zenith clearly showed the Rice opinions were indefensible, even based on the scanty and contradictory evidence in her unredacted report.


But what the Zenith was not able to report on was that many statements by Harry Welty, Jane Bushey, and myself were excluded from the Rice Report. So not only was the Rice opinion based largely on hearsay and false information, it did not even fully report what was told to her in my defense.


Thanks to the Zenith’s investigative reporting, many people now know that the whole attempt to remove me was trumped-up garbage. But there has not been one report on how brazen it was for the Superintendent and School Board majority to even attempt to remove me from an elected position. There were no criminal or even civil charges ever filed by the Superintendent or School Board. This whole action took place inside the School Board, where they and the Superintendent were, literally, the Judge, Jury, and Executioner.


If they had removed me, they would have simply appointed someone they approved of, without an election by the Fourth District that I represent. This process was totally outside any court of law. The only thing that stopped this outrageous injustice was when I went directly to federal court, where in less than an hour of legal arguments, the judge made the School District realize it needed to stop defending the lawsuit and settle it.


There has been nothing reported on how this law (Minn. Stat. 123B.09, Subd. 9), which the Superintendent and School Board used to try to remove me, is unique in the United States and has questionable constitutionality. There is no other state in the Union that allows an elected school board member, or any elected official for that matter, to be removed by a simple vote of the other board members—for reasons obvious to anyone who believes in democracy and the Constitution.


According to the website Ballotpedia, there are only 19 states where an elected official can be removed and that is only with a recall election. And even fewer states allow a school board member to be recalled. What is a recall election? Most states require a petition signed by 25 percent of the voters, and then for a real court of law (not the school board!) to rule that such a petition is based on malfeasance and not political innuendo. Then there has to be a new election. In Minnesota, school board members can’t be recalled by the voters, but, believe it or not, they can be removed by a simple majority vote of four school board members.


Most legal observers think this Minnesota law is unconstitutional. Unfortunately (or fortunately, considering the further legal costs to the taxpayer), the constitutionality of this law was never tested, as the Duluth School District dropped their attempt to remove me immediately after the federal judge made his statements. This whole fiasco in Duluth is now over—on the surface.

 

But what was the cost to the School District and the City of Duluth? There were about $250,000 in legal costs, and the opportunity cost continues to be great for both the schools and the city. There is continuing damage to the schools, as evidenced by the dramatic drop in student enrollment, likely because parents are fed-up by the Superintendent and School Board, whose priorities appear to be personal vendettas rather than addressing large class sizes, low graduation rates, and the achievement gap.

 

An environment of fear permeates the school—if the Superintendent can go after an elected School Board member, what protection does anyone else have? What other board member, staff, parent, or student will be next? So far, the Superintendent has refused to take any steps that could mend the schism caused by this aborted legal attack. Luckily, three School Board members that started this attack elected not to rerun. Hopefully, the new School Board will have other priorities.


Another omission of the reporting on this entire episode has been the lack of any discussion about “what is the function of an elected school board in an Independent School District?” School board members are elected officials like all other elected officials in America. They are elected to be independent representatives. Elected school board members are not the PTA nor are they a “Superintendent’s Auxiliary.”


It is my opinion that school board members are supposed to make policy; oversee district finances; give public input and approval of curriculum; serve as checks and balances on the administrative bureaucracy; hire and critique the superintendent; be the “go-to” person for parents, students, and employees; and in general be the interface between the larger community and the school district.   

Art Johnston
Elected School Board Representative, Fourth District

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