By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON, Wis. — Since taking over as leader of the state Department of Public Instruction in 2009, Tony Evers has allowed at least 13 teachers and principals to keep their Wisconsin teaching licenses after those employees lost their jobs due to “immoral conduct.”
At least three of those educators still work in public schools.
School district investigations into these employees found “immoral conduct” including sexual harassment, tampering with standardized tests, stealing private student data and having inappropriate relationships with children.
DPI has completed just 25 license reviews referred by school districts since 2009, according to records obtained exclusively by Wisconsin Reporter through an open records request. It’s unclear how many additional cases are now under investigation because DPI refuses to turn over those records to Wisconsin Reporter.
DPI ignored multiple interview requests from Wisconsin Reporter.
School administrators, however, say these kinds of investigations and referrals for license revocation are rare and made only after much deliberation.
“If we’re investing our time and money with the legal fees, then this is something substantial in our minds,” said Debra Hunt, superintendent of Valders School District.
In June 2012, the Valders School District requested a DPI license review for Tracie Wurm, former director of special education and school psychologist. A district investigation alleged Wurm had stolen “hundreds of electronic student files from the School District computer server.” The district wrote this was “unethical conduct which endangered the education of students.”
Hunt declined to elaborate on the charges, but said the fact the district made the request to DPI speaks for itself.
School administrators must report to DPI when a staff member is convicted of a crime against children or sexual assault. Administrators must also report suspected “immoral conduct” if they believe that conduct factored in the employee’s termination or resignation.
The state superintendent is given authority by state law to revoke a teacher’s license after a DPI investigation.
Evers decided Wurm should keep her license, and Wurm now works as a psychologist in the Reedsville school district.
DPI track record of teachers’ license reviews
Evers, since 2009, has revoked eight licenses because of sexual assault of children, possession of child pornography or soliciting sex from minors. He is required by law to do so.
Evers also revoked the licenses of two teachers who allegedly accessed pornography at school and one who allegedly used social media for inappropriate relationships with underage students. Police were involved in two of those instances, but criminal charges weren’t issued.
In another case, Evers didn’t revoke the license of former teacher Eugene Dennis, who died days after he was sentenced in a student sex case. That DPI investigation was open 15 months before Dennis died.
In instances where wrongdoing doesn’t result in criminal charges or police investigations, records show Evers tends to side with school staff.
He allowed former Janesville principal John Walczak, who was fired after being accused of sexual harassment that allegedly occurred during an 18-month period, to keep his license.
The Janesville Gazette reported that Walczak made repeated sexual comments in the workplace and was sometimes too drunk to attend morning convention sessions.
Employees told school officials Walczak said things like “you’re nipped out” and “I knew within the first three minutes that I was going to hire you. Yeah, I am a boob man” to female staff. He frequently commented on the bodies of female teachers and parents, according to the Gazette’s report.
Christopher Blanchard, a music teacher who resigned from his previous job after marrying a former student when she turned 18, still has his license to teach. Blanchard lists on his LinkedIn account that he works for Teachers on Call, a company that contracts with school districts to provide substitute teachers.
The School District of West Allis-West Milwaukee determined that Susan Conhartoski “contributed to the delinquency of a minor” by holding “alcohol on school premises to be returned to child at the end of the day.”
She was fired for gross misconduct, but Evers allowed her to retain her teaching license.
The district declined to speak about the investigation, but was deferential to the superintendent’s decision-making authority.
“We didn’t make a judgment on whether she should lose her license at all,” said HR director Kristen Gurtner. “It was not our decision to make. We report (to DPI) what we’re required to report.”
Evers has broad discretion over the investigations.
After receiving the district’s investigative files, Evers decides whether to investigate any further. He could decline to pursue the district’s referral. Following an investigation, he decides if there is probable cause to move forward with a hearing. After the hearing, which is like a mini-trial, he makes his final decision whether a teaching license should be withdrawn.
DPI isn’t exactly transparent with its decision-making process, according to several school administrators.
“Basically they said, ‘we made a decision, this is the decision.’ There was no explanation of why,” Hunt said about the letter she received from DPI. “I had to accept it.”
Other administrators didn’t return Wisconsin Reporter’s calls for comment.
School districts wait for answers
DPI investigations typically remain open until after the school district has completed personnel actions and following the conclusion of any court action that might occur as a result of the allegations.
Former DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper previously told Wisconsin Reporter “the DPI investigation process is thorough and labor intensive, independent of other actions/determinations made by other parties.”
In practice, that means school districts often wait years after making a referral to DPI before the agency informs them of its final decision.
In December 2009, the Deforest Area School District referred a case to DPI for investigation. Human Resources Director Vickie Adkins told Wisconsin Reporter the case in her school district was “pretty benign” compared to some of the other allegations. The employee violated school policy that district attorneys felt should be forwarded to DPI for investigation, though Adkins would not give any details about the case.
“I did follow up in 2011,” Adkins said. “I called (DPI) and left a voice mail asking for the outcome of the investigation.”
She said a DPI staffer called back and said the department was behind on its work and would follow up with her with the outcome of the investigation. Adkins never received that follow-up call.
Middleton School District Superintendent Don Johnson said he knows the feeling.
After a 2010 district investigation found that Andrew Harris, a middle school science teacher, viewed hundreds of pornographic videos and photographs at school over a nine-year period, the district fired Harris. But his labor union filed a grievance and Harris was reinstated after an arbitrator’s decision under the pre-Act 10 era collective-bargaining agreement.
Evers remains the last resort for the district that spent nearly $1 million to remove the porn-watching teacher from the classroom.
Nearly four years after opening its investigation into Harris, DPI has had just two conversations with the school district.
“(Johnson) said he is getting lots of questions from parents and other citizens who want to know where the process is at, and we’re basically getting ‘no comment,’” district spokesman Perry Hibner previously told Wisconsin Reporter.
More allegations, resignations
Mark Schroeder, a former social studies teacher at Boscobel Area School District, “confessed to having an inappropriate love relationship with a minor child,” according to a report submitted to DPI by then-Superintendent Steve Smith.
Smith noted that prior to the school board firing Schroeder, he was allowed to resign. This was a repeated outcome in many of the records.
“The teacher and student confessed their love to each other, he admitted to hugging her, kissing her forehead, and having lunch with her on an ongoing basis in the privacy of his room, despite the mother’s protestations,” Smith wrote. “He wrote a love letter which surfaced during the investigation.”
Jill Zielinski, a former teacher at the Oregon School District, allegedly sent dirty jokes and sex cartoons to high school boys using her cell phone, according to the report filed with DPI. She also allegedly joked about alcohol and sex with boys.
One text Zielinski allegedly forwarded to multiple students included a picture of stick-like figures engaging in oral sex and included jokes about oral sex and masturbation. The text ended with, “Send to 10 freaks in 30 minutes or you will have bad sex for a year. Get to sending — see how many people you can make laugh.”
Zielinski resigned from her position, but still has her teacher’s license.
Another teacher, Ken Bessac, was fired after an alleged inappropriate relationship with a student, the New Richmond News reported in May 2013.
Bessac has his license.
Allegations against teachers whose licenses weren’t revoked include inappropriate touching and comments to female students, working under the influence of alcohol, physical altercations with a student and tampering with standardized tests.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at 608-257-1382, [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Nockian.