The Middleton-Cross Plains School Board has spent about $300,000 in the last year fighting a grievance filed on behalf of a teacher fired after an investigation found he viewed pornography at school.
Andrew Harris, a former seventh-grade science teacher at Glacier Creek Middle School, along with seven high school staff members and one administrator, were investigated and disciplined after the district discovered porn and other inappropriate adult content, including nudity and sexual jokes, in their email system during the fall of 2009.
“In these days in a shortage of cash we’re loath to spend money on lawyers,” said Ellen Lindgren, president of the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board. “On the other hand, we believe the community supports the termination of a teacher who intentionally accesses pornography.”
Union leaders say the case isn’t about teachers viewing porn on a school computer — an action they agree is wrong. Rather, they argue the discipline for Harris and the others was unjust and not based on clear standards or objective criteria.
A union lawyer, Willie Haus, also alleges the district went after Harris because he was a union leader who had criticized the School Board.
Superintendent Don Johnson said district policy prohibits the “deliberate accessing or transmitting materials that are obscene, sexually explicit or child pornography.” It cited that language and other district policies regarding electronic communication when making its disciplinary decisions, he said.
Also at stake is the district’s still unsettled teachers’ contract, and both parties say those negotiations have been marred by the ongoing grievance case.
The grievance calls for reinstating Harris and reversing other disciplinary actions taken by the School Board, including back pay for teachers who served suspensions.
Year in arbitration
The grievance is playing out when some lawmakers are trying to pass a law that would automatically revoke the teaching license of school employees who view pornography on the job. The proposed bill is still in committee in both the Senate and Assembly.
Harris was first put on paid leave on Dec. 3, 2009, while the School District investigated him and other staffers for accessing porn and other inappropriate adult content using the district’s email system. A month later Harris was put on unpaid leave and in May 2010 the School Board voted to fire him.
The union challenged his dismissal along with other disciplinary steps taken by the School Board, and since then both sides have spent a year in arbitration, listening to testimony, which ended on May 2.
The union and district have until early July to file final written reports. Johnson said the arbitrator could make a decision as early as Oct. 15 or as late as Dec. 30.
Johnson said the district’s investigation showed sufficient evidence — 23 emails in just over one year containing pornographic images, videos and inappropriate jokes — to justify firing Harris. Other staff members investigated and disciplined received between zero and nine emails with images.
Five staff members served up to 12 days of unpaid suspensions, one substitute teacher was dismissed and a veteran administrator resigned. Two other teachers were given verbal warnings.
“Every level of discipline is based upon the severity of what the person was involved in,” Johnson said.
Officials say this grievance goes beyond just affecting the district’s finances.
“Every dollar that goes toward arbitration is taken away from education programming,” Johnson said. “It’s unfortunate. There’s no doubt that this is a significant distraction.”
Harris did not return a call for comment.
Chris Bauman, president of the Middleton Education Association, said issues related to the grievance have overflowed into contract negotiations, specifically regarding issues of discipline and hiring a third-party arbitrator.
In a contract proposal earlier this year, the School Board suggested it be the final step in the grievance procedure, as opposed to hiring an arbitrator, as it has in the Harris grievance. Officials declined to say whether that was still part of the contract currently being negotiated.