Gov. Scott Walker has asked State Superintendent Tony Evers to begin license revocation proceedings for a Middleton teacher reinstated to his job this month after being fired in 2010 for looking at pornographic images at school.
“After hearing from concerned parents, I am asking you to act efficiently in your investigation into the actions of Mr. (Andrew) Harris and to initiate revocation proceedings,” Walker wrote to Evers on Tuesday. “The arbitration process afforded to Mr. Harris failed the school district and the students. It has taken both a financial and emotional toll on the district. Cases, such as this one, are a good example of why our reforms are necessary.”
Harris’ teaching license has been under investigation by the Department of Public Instruction since 2010, when he was fired by the Middleton-Cross Plains School District after a district investigation revealed Harris and other teachers were looking at sexually explicit content at school.
Other teachers also found to be violating the district’s policies on Internet and technology were not fired. An arbitrator ruled in 2012 that the district “has just cause to discipline Harris but because the penalty of discharge is excessive, arbitrary and an abuse of discretion, the penalty needs to be reduced to be comparable to other penalties for similar offenses,” and that he should be given a 15-day suspension instead.
Circuit and appellate courts upheld that ruling. Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the school board’s appeal of the arbitrator’s ruling, prompting the district to comply with the ruling and reinstate Harris.
State law requires school districts to report to DPI the name of any licensed teacher who was fired “based in whole or in part on evidence that the person engaged in immoral conduct.”
At the time of Harris’ termination, such action was defined as “conduct or behavior that is contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare, or education of any pupil.”
The law also requires DPI to investigate whether to convene license revocation proceedings for those teachers. A law known as Act 84 that was passed in 2011 further clarified immoral conduct to include looking at pornography on school computers.
In the letter, Walker said “it appears (Harris’) behavior meets the definition of ‘Immoral conduct,’” giving Evers the ability to revoke Harris’ license.
Walker also said Act 84 and Act 10, which imposed collective bargaining restrictions for public employees, were reforms he worked to put in place that gave “local school districts the tools they need to hire and fire teachers based on merit, performance and professional conduct. With the passage of 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, schools now have the ability to move away from the old contracts, which prevented them from doing so.”
Harris’ lawyer, William Haus, said Act 84 doesn’t apply in his client’s case because Harris’ termination took place in 2010 — before it was enacted. A DPI official said he could not comment on whether the law could be applied retroactively.
Haus said the governor’s letter attempts to negate due process and insults the state’s legal system.
“We have a legal system in this country,” Haus said. “You go through four years of litigation and now the governor chimes in?
“There has to be an end of a process ... you can’t go through four years of expensive litigation and it goes all the way to the Supreme Court and suddenly we have someone who knows better.”
Some Middleton parents have protested the decision to reinstate Harris by picketing outside of Kromrey Middle School, where he will begin teaching Wednesday.
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor sent the letter to Evers after hearing from one of those parents. In an email last week, an aide to the governor told parent Kira Dott, who asked for advice, that the matter was under the jurisdiction of the local school board and “further from the Governor’s jurisdiction as this was decided in the courts.”
Evenson said the purpose of Tuesday’s letter was to ask Evers to review the matter and “to act quickly.”
DPI spokesman Patrick Gasper said no one at DPI had received the letter as of 2 p.m. Tuesday but later said Evers was “aware of the letter.” Gasper did not comment on the letter.
Middleton-Cross Plains spokesman Perry Hibner said the district’s only comment regarding the letter was “at this point, we’re really trying to move forward with our plan and we’ll wait to see how it turns out.”