Duluth Public Schools has agreed to pay $55,000 to a former school board member who sued the district over its handling of his public records requests.
The district reached the settlement with Art Johnston more than 10 months after he filed four separate data requests, seeking information about construction contracts and property sales and about the district’s process for handling his data requests. The settlement will be paid out by the district’s insurance company, and the district did not admit wrongdoing — but it did agree to follow Minnesota Government Data Practices Act requirements for future data requests.
On Jan. 14, board members voted unanimously to approve the deal after a discussion in closed session. In a short public session before the vote, Trevor Helmers, an attorney representing the district, said the district’s insurance company recommended the settlement in hopes of avoiding a lengthier and costlier legal battle.
“[The insurance company] has done a cost-benefit analysis that says: ‘When I look at how much time and expense is going to the defense of this litigation, if we can get rid of it early for a relatively small amount, we will,’ ” he said.
In the meeting, Helmers characterized Johnston’s data requests as “difficult and onerous,” demanding a significant amount of time from the district’s administrative staff and legal team. He said the requests that prompted the court battle involved close to 300,000 pages of documents.
Johnston, a two-term board member who has frequently challenged the district over its spending and transparency, disputed that estimate. He said the district deliberately violated state law when it failed to appropriately respond to his requests, filed in March 2018. The law requires government agencies to respond to data requests people make about themselves within 10 days, and within a “reasonable time” for requests on other subjects.
Johnston took the matter to the Minnesota Department of Administration, which in July issued an advisory opinion backing his claims. In the opinion, Matthew Massman, then the department’s commissioner, wrote that Duluth Public Schools had “not responded appropriately” to the requests. He said the district failed to notify Johnston that some of the data he requested did not exist, explain its delayed response, or provide any information about at least one of the requests.
District officials did not respond to Johnston’s requests until September, a month after Johnston filed his lawsuit.
Johnston now has the data he requested — and is set to receive the $55,000 payout from the district. He said he’s pleased with the settlement, even though he had to agree to forgo any future challenges to the district over public data. That amounts to a major shift for the semiretired structural engineer, who has spent most of the past decade sparring with fellow board members and district administrators over the district’s handling of major financial deals and records management.
The lawsuit over the records was Johnston’s third involving the district. The first, before he ran for office, was over the district’s approval of a multimillion-dollar construction project. He lost. The second involved an effort by the rest of the school board to remove Johnston from his seat. (The board backed down and the case was dropped.)
“I think it’s significant,” Johnstons said of the settlement. “I’m hoping school districts take notice that they really should be responsive to the public.”
District spokeswoman Kathleen Kaufman declined to comment, instead referring the Star Tribune to a recording of the meeting in which the school board approved the deal.
Though he can’t pursue any new legal actions involving the data he received last year from the district, Johnston said he expects the district could face more challenges.
“Lots of other people can do this besides me,” he said.