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Teacher union victory: Porn-watching teacher gets to teach again

By   /   January 22, 2014  /   No Comments

PORN SCHOOL: An investigation found more than 30 educators in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District had viewed or shared pornography or other inappropriate content on school computers. Teacher Andrew Harris was fired, but has been reinstated nearly four years later - and his return will cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

PORN SCHOOL: An investigation found more than 30 educators in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District had viewed or shared pornography or other inappropriate content on school computers. Teacher Andrew Harris was fired, but has been reinstated nearly four years later – and his return will cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 

M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON, Wis. — Maybe the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District’s expensive episode involving a porn-watching teacher isn’t karma, but it sure could be déjà vu all over again.

On Tuesday, the suburban Madison school district offered former seventh-grade science teacher Andrew Harris a position teaching the same subject and grade but at a different school in the district — Kromrey Middle School.

While he was fired nearly four years ago for looking at and sending porn and other sexual content to his fellow teachers, Harris will pocket nearly $200,000 in back pay thanks to a union grievance process that the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board has continued to endorse in these post-Act 10 days.

“What did they expect? They agreed to this,” said Rick Esenberg, president of the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit law firm.

“They have staunchly opposed the very reforms that allow them to get out from under this,” Esenberg said of the School Board, which opted to negotiate a one-year contract with the Middleton Education Association teachers’ union. Middleton-Cross Plains was one of only a few districts statewide to take advantage of a Dane County court decision that created confusion over Act 10, Gov. Scott Walker’s cornerstone reforms of Wisconsin’s public-sector collective-bargain law.

While Act 10 limits what many conservative believe to be the outsized power of public labor unions, Middleton-Cross Plains contract includes many of the pre-Act 10 labor protections that have driven school district costs to unsustainable levels.

And, Esenberg said, the Middleton-Cross Plains contract includes the same grievance process language that has cost the district nearly $1 million to fight court-ordered reinstatement of a teacher found to have viewed and sent out more than 20 pornographic and sexually inappropriate images on school time.

District Communications Director Perry Hibner concedes the public school system could “hypothetically” find itself in another long and expensive grievance battle with a union-represented teacher due to its contract. But Hibner said another battle over the district’s porn policy isn’t likely. Why? Because Middleton-Cross Plains has since written up a clear policy on appropriate computer use.

Esenberg said the district’s continued collective bargaining with the MEA despite what he asserts is the illegality of the contract under Act 10 should come as no surprise.  School Board President Ellen Lindgren has made no secret of her distaste for Walker and his collective bargaining reforms.

“I think what Gov. Walker has done to public education has been a huge mistake,” Lindgren told the liberal Capital Times in Madison in a 2011 interview, after she fielded questions during a telephone conference call with Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

“It was a one-sided decision with no input from educators, administrators, school boards. The changes are punishing to our students, and it comes at a time when we most need to be investing in improving public education for the future,” Lindgren said.

In the days since its implementation, Act 10 has saved school districts throughout the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

Lindgren, according to conservative news organization Media Trackers, used her school email account to ellenl@mcpasd.k12.wi.us, to send an official Mary Burke campaign e-mail to fellow educators. Burke is the Democrat’s lead candidate for governor.

Political solicitation by public employees is a crime and carries a maximum fine of $2,000 and up to a year in prison. Conservatives have called on election watchers to review the email, citing concerns of fairness. Critics point to Darlene Wink, Walker’s aide when he was Milwaukee County executive, who got slapped with one year of probation for political solicitation. Wink was convicted in a Democrat-led John Doe investigation that doggedly pursued Wink and her emails of support of Walker’s run for governor typed on her personal laptop while on county time.

Lindgren could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The porn-watching case in Middleton-Cross Plains also came down to a question of fairness.

Harris’ reinstatement comes more than four years after a female teacher complained that Harris dhowed her a picture of a naked woman, precipitating the investigation at the district’s Glacier Creek Middle School.

Harris wasn’t alone.

Five other staff members received short-term, unpaid suspensions, an administrator resigned and one substitute teacher was let go, all for viewing or sending “inappropriate” sexual content at school.

Harris was the only school employee to lose his job following an internal investigation, and therein lies the rub.

An arbitrator in 2012 ordered that Harris was effectively treated unfairly because the other employees were “doing the same or similar types of things — viewing pornographic materials in various ways, receiving inappropriate emails, forwarding them to others, failing to discourage the senders, attempting to or in fact accessing inappropriate websites.”

“The fact that he (Harris) was discharged while others were suspended or received written reprimands or nothing at all, the discharge cannot stand,” wrote arbitrator Karen Mawhinney in her February 2012 ruling in favor of the Middleton Education Association’s grievance on behalf of Harris and others.

The district has long argued that the penalties meted out were based on degree of severity and that Harris’ involvement was significantly more pronounced than the others. Middleton-Cross Plains spokesman Hibner said that saying all of the sexual content gawkers were equally guilty is like comparing jaywalking to murder.

The district’s investigation found that Harris “received, viewed, and often showed fellow teachers more than 20 e-mails containing pornography (nude photos and videos of sex acts) and other adult content.”

But that did not hold water in Madison-based courts.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge  C. William Foust ruled the district had to abide by the arbitrator’s decision to reduce Harris’ dismissal to a 15-day suspension, pay him back wages and send him back to the classroom.

The three-judge District IV Court of Appeals in August affirmed the arbitrator’s ruling, disputing the school district’s contention about the severity of Harris’ infractions.

“Contrary to the district’s assessment that Harris’s conduct was by far the worst among the teachers involved, the arbitrator deemed Harris’s conduct worse in some respects, but less serious in other respects, than the conduct of other teachers,” the appeals court wrote. 

“For instance, the arbitrator deemed it more serious to have deliberately accessed pornographic websites on district computers used at home, as some of the other teachers did, than to have passively received inappropriate emails in the school building, as Harris did, and more serious to have sent or forwarded materials than to merely have received them.”

In short, there were a lot of educators — more than 30, according to the investigation — guilty of acting badly with taxpayer-funded computers.

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WARNING: The collective bargaining agreement between the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District and the teachers union could lead to more expensive grievance proceedings, a legal expert warns.

And taxpayers are now left with a bill approaching $1 million. That’s how much it has cost the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board to defend its position, all the way to the state Supreme Court, which recently declined to hear the district’s appeal.

On top of Harris’ back pay of $198,936.43, two other suspended teachers, Michael Duren and Gregg Cramer, will receive $4,485.99 and $4,702.66, respectively.

Chris Bauman, president of the Middleton Education Association, in an email to Wisconsin Reporter said  he is “choosing not to comment further on this story.”

“We consider this case now closed and will have no further comment for your publication,” he said in response to Wisconsin Reporter’s questions about MEA’s defense of Harris.

Harris could not be reached for comment.

The teacher is expected to report to Kromrey Middle School on Friday and is expected to begin teaching students when the second semester begins on Monday.

Jennifer Valtierra has two children attending Glacier Creek Middle School, where Harris once taught. While she said she believes the district made a mistake in not firing all of the teachers found to have viewed pornography at school, she stands by due process. But that’s hollow consolation for a mother who has had to explain the sordid case to her kids.

“What do we tell our kids?” she said.  “We talked about this with our children and they are disgusted and asking, ‘Why is he getting away with this?’ It’s a tough one to describe that this isn’t about pornography, that it’s about treating some differently than others. It’s sad have to explain to your kids that this stuff happens.”

Robert Weitzel, at the time a counselor at Glacier Creek Middle School, in a March 2012 editorial letter on the porn scandal wrote that if the teaching profession is to ever “dispel the tea party stereotype of teacher unions, we need to be able to police ourselves.”

“Ultimately, if we condone the unethical treatment by our silence, we are culpable,” Weitzel asserted in his letter to the Wisconsin State Journal, a few months before he drowned in a kayak accident on Lake Superior. “But sadly, according to Willie Haus, our union’s lawyer, ‘(viewing pornography on school time) was not the end of the world.’ Maybe not, but it should be the end of his teaching career.”

Contact M.D. Kittle at mkittle@watchdog.org

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M.D. Kittle