School Board Could Have Settled Porn Dispute For $21,000

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Kevin Murphy

The Middleton Cross-Plains Board of Education could have accepted the resignation of a middle school teacher who viewed pornography on a school computer in 2010 for about $21,000, but instead has spent $600,000 in legal expenses trying to fire him, according to documentation provided by an attorney representing the teacher.

The school board suspended and then put Glacier Creek teacher Andrew Harris on administrative leave at half pay in January 2010 after discovering about 22 emails on his classroom computer that contained sexually explicit images.

At that time, Harris’ attorney, William Haus, gave superintendent Don Johnson an offer that included Harris’ resignation in exchange for allowing the district to immediately fill his position, write a mutually agreeable letter of reference and pay about $21,000 in liquidated health insurance premiums, accrued sick leave and other compensation, according to terms of the district’s contract.

The board rejected that offer and Johnson later told Haus they didn’t want to give Harris anything, the attorney contended.

“They were able to get rid of this teacher with a guarantee that he would be gone, but they were on their high horse and wouldn’t accept it,” Haus said this week.

Johnson said the district’s decision to deny Harris’ offer was based on ethics, not money.

“Mr. Haus tends to make things up, or conveniently omit important information, and this comment is an example of that,” Johnson replied. “Although there was an exchange of options for a separation agreement, the money to be paid was not the major factor in the initial negotiations.  In addition [to] financial compensation, Haus demanded a positive recommendation for Harris in order to allow him to go to another school district.”

Johnson said the school board was not “ethically” willing to “pass along a problem to another school district without disclosing the truth of Harris’ behavior.”

Johnson went on to say Haus also demanded the district not report Harris’ behavior to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. 

“He also asked to have a secret agreement and a public agreement, which we viewed as unethical and illegal,” he continued. “We were not willing to violate state law to grant their request.”

Harris had taught for 17 years in the district without prior incident and Haus said he should have “something to help him go forward.”

Haus, who is the Middleton Education Association (MEA) teachers union attorney, said he made the offer before Johnson told him the district also was investigating several other teachers for viewing pornography on school computers.

The district subsequently fired Harris and issued suspensions and reprimands to the other teachers.

Both parties agreed that students didn’t see any of the sexually explicit images.

Just before the MEA took the teachers’ disciplinary actions to arbitration, the district offered Harris $17,000 to resign but that was refused as “unreasonable,” said Haus. Johnson said Harris wanted $400,000.

Harris contended at arbitration that his termination was unequal treatment considering he wasn’t the only teacher to view pornography at school. Harris, an MEA bargaining team member, had written a letter criticizing the district’s treatment of teachers shortly before he was fired.

The district has maintained that the duration and severity of the sexually explicit images emailed to Harris was far more egregious than found in the other cases and warranted termination.

Arbitrator Karen Mawhinney changed Harris’ termination to a 15-day suspension; suspensions were changed to reprimands, finding they were excessive in comparison to sanctions other teachers received.

The district appealed Mawhinney’s decision but last summer, Dane County Circuit Judge William Foust upheld Mawhinney, ordering Harris reinstated, and last Thursday the District 4 Court of Appeals upheld Foust.

On Monday, the board voted 8-0, with Bob Hesselbein absent, to ask the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case.

To date, the district said it has incurred $598,274 in legal expenses, but Haus said that figure probably doesn’t include the $25,000 arbitrator’s fee plus staff time spent investigating, writing reports and attending hearings.

Johnson said the figure is accurate.

“No, it is all part of the $598,000,” he said. “There are no outstanding billings at this time.”

According to Haus, the district seemed to believe Harris’ termination would be upheld based on the shock value of the images on his computer.

Nobody, including Harris, has said a teacher shouldn’t be disciplined for viewing nude images in the classroom, but Haus says the case wasn’t about the conduct, but the punishment.

“Comparative fairness is the issue the district didn’t want this case based on,” he said. “They would have preferred seven cases with seven different arbitrators but that didn’t happen; all the cases got lumped in together.”

“They have attacked the arbitrator, attacked the courts but they’ve never looked at themselves; have they been fair?” Haus asked.

“[T]he demands made by Haus and the union were not reasonable or rational, nor were they ever clearly articulated,” Johnson countered. 

The district and Harris have an agreement regarding his pay and employment through the end of the court process. According to Haus, Harris remains on administrative leave at half pay plus employee benefits. Harris gets to keep that no matter what and would be paid the half back pay to date if the district quits contesting the reinstatement or successfully appeals it.

“Basically, the district did not want Harris back in the classroom,” said Johnson. “We were willing to pay him 50 percent salary and benefits until final court processes are completed.”

If Harris continues to win in court, not even Haus thinks Harris would teach again in Middleton-Cross Plains Area schools given the efforts made to fire him. Harris would reject a “make work” position in district offices and be leery of a job where they could continue to seek his dismissal in retaliation for winning the lawsuit, he said.

“The question isn’t does Harris belong in the classroom … but [do] Johnson and school board president [Ellen Lindgren] belong in their jobs? They both have been approaching this case with total hatred toward Andy … which has to do with his role in contract negotiations,” Haus maintains.

Four judges and an arbitrator have already reviewed the case and don’t think Harris has done anything “so horribly wrong” that he shouldn’t teach again, Haus said.

 

 

 

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