Duluth School Board Wasn’t Told Of Asst. Superintendent’s Criminal History When Hired

DULUTH, Minn. – FOX 21 has learned Duluth School District Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Horton is on probation through 2022 for a third DWI offense he was sentenced for just months before being hired for the No. 2 job in the school district in July of last 2018.

And while DWIs are not a deal breaker for hiring administrators in the state of Minnesota, FOX 21’s Dan Hanger has learned the Duluth school board was never told about that criminal history before signing off on Horton’s contract — even though three key public employees knew all along about the criminal history, including Superintendent Bill Gronseth.

We ask why, along with expert opinion from one of the state’s top education executives.

“Although he has not officially begun, he has fully invested in our community. He has moved his family here already and is looking forward to a long tenure in Duluth,” Gronseth said at a June 2018 board meeting.

At the meeting, Gronseth urged the board to unanimously approve 38-year-old Jeffrey Horton as the district’s new assistant superintendent at a starting wage of $132,500 beginning July 1, 2018.

“I would hope we would be welcoming him to the district in unanimous support of his contract and moving forward,” Gronseth told the board.

But some board members had questions about the financial package of the contract and felt the short notice to look it over wasn’t ideal.

“I am not responsible for him coming and starting already,” said Board Member Alanna Oswald. “I’m asked to approve a contract or not based on fiscal management, and I am here saying I need more time.”

“I really want to urge the administration and leadership to push so that we can start having these conversations sooner, recognizing that you know that you have a board of people who look through these and who are really looking for answers,” Board Member Sally Trnka said at the meeting.

The contract was ultimately approved that day over internal candidates. Gina Kleive, principal of Ordean East Middle School, and Jennifer Larva, principal of Lowel Elementary.

But what the board was not informed about at the time in that 2018 June meeting — and what Supt. Gronseth and some of his administration knew — was the criminal history of Horton involving three DWIs all in Minnesota with the most recent conviction just months before behind hired that includes current jail time.

In 2009, Horton pleaded guilty to DWI and later had the charge reduced to “careless driving” after having the judge’s conditions met.

In 2013, he got a second DWI, and in 2017 Horton got his third DWI with a sentence of 30 days in jail immediately and another 30 days each year through 2022.(Since this story was filed, FOX 21 has learned that in February of 2019 a judge waived the staggered jail sentence for the rest of his probation and the original 30 days served was cut down to 19 days).

The board found out about the criminal record in early 2019 when an anonymous packet was delivered to them, all principals and district leadership with court documents about the DWIs.

The packet had a letter written by people described as concerned employees at Horton’s former employer, the St. Cloud School District, where he resigned as director of student services in June of 2018 after resigning in 2016 as a first-year principal in the Pine Island School District.

Those resignations all happened during the two DWI convictions.

So why wasn’t the school board informed of Horton’s criminal record before they signed off on the new contract, as directed by Superintendent Gronseth?

Gronseth had no comment for this story, nor did Board Chair Rosie Loeffler-Kemp and board members Nora Sandstad and Sally Trnka. (Click here for updated statements).

David Kirby, school board chair at the time who was leading the hiring committee before Horton’s hire, was the only person aware of his background — along with Gronseth and HR Manager Tim Sworsky.

Board Member David Kirby released the following statement to FOX 21:

“As a matter of transparency, Mr. Horton shared information about his past prior to being hired. The Superintendent and then School Board Chair (which was me) followed district hiring practices in place at the time in regard to that information.

Mr. Horton was selected for his extensive background in education as a teacher, principal, and district administrator, as well as for his knowledge of student achievement strategies, and experience in student culture.  He maintains active administrative licensure through the Minnesota Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board.

As required by Minnesota law, background checks are processed by ISD709 through the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  In addition, the district conducts standard prehire employment verification by any current or previous employers for all applicants.”

Dr. Tony Kinkel, executive director of the Minnesota Board of School Administrators, believes when it comes to DWIs, it’s not a deal breaker for pulling an administrator’s license, and it can actually make someone a better leader for students and even parents going through addiction issues themselves.

“I’m a firm believer and I think our board is a firm believer that at some point, you can pay your debt to society, too,” said Kinkel. “So to have administrators who sort of walked in that world and overcome it and learn from it, is a good thing. So we are balancing that. It’s not a permanent scarlet letter on someone. We’re going to weigh and believe in redemption. And so we weigh all of that on a case by case basis.”

But Kinkel believes it’s crucial for school districts to gather and provide as much information as possible on a final candidate’s background to all who make hiring decisions, including a school board.

“People that are hiring should have every legal information in front of them to make a good decision,” Kinkel said.

Because he says the roles of principals, assistant superintendents and superintends are becoming increasingly difficult — from bullying to mental health issues and even school shootings.

“The school board and the superintendent, you know, need to be aligned in that. You do want a very clear process that everybody agrees upon – especially when you are hiring a superintendent, assistant superintendent, principals. Those are very serious hires,” Kinkel said.

And at least three school board members agree.

Board Member Josh Gorham released the following statement to FOX 21:

“I was not aware of the convictions before approving Mr. Horton’s contract. We strive to be a board that works collaboratively with the Superintendent and other district leaders. We trust that important information will be shared with us. While a policy may be worth considering in this instance, trust is necessary to function on a day-to-day basis. We have a policy in place that defines the code of conduct for district employees, and I am in favor of adopting a similar policy for school administrators.”

Board member and retired teacher Jill Lofald released the following statement to FOX 21:

“As a Board this has caused us to reflect on Policy and Procedure in our hiring practices – as this is an issue we have not dealt with in the past. So like any strong board, we have contemplated this issue of when a background check reveals some criminal issues in the area of alcohol-  what do we do with that?  We have a Board that is willing to do Reflection – Learn- Change and Grow when we have things come up that are challenging.”

And Board Member Alanna Oswald released the following statement to FOX 21:

“It is hard to talk publicly about our hiring process without inferences being made about private data referencing the hiring of Assistant Superintendent Horton. Therefore, I simply want to state that I have made my feelings known to my colleagues and Superintendent, and the changes in process that I would like to make happen. I’m hopeful different processes will guide future contract hirings.”

FOX 21 we did reach out to Asst. Supt. Jeffrey Horton for comment on this story to talk about anything he wanted, but we did not heard back.

Supt. Gronseth says employees receive background checks.

And at the state level, administrator’s licenses are reviewed every five years for patterns of things like DWIs.

The state also reviews all complaints from the public and district while also looking into issue that arise from media reports.

Gronseth, by the way, announced in March that he is not looking to renew his contract once it expires in 2020.  Gronseth has spent more than 20 years serving the Duluth School District, including seven years as superintendent.

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