MIDDLETON, WI—Wisconsin used to be a fairly liberal place to live. After all, it sent Sen. Russ Feingold back to Washington three times, even though he voted against Bill Clinton's impeachment, against the USA PATRIOT Act and against beginning the War in Iraq. (Even today, it continues to reelect gay Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a progressive and strong supporter of women's rights.) Back in the '60s and '70s, students at both the Madison and Ann Arbor campuses of the University of Wisconsin (UW) were strongly anti-war, and prevented Dow Chemical Corp., manufacturer of napalm, from holding job fairs on campus.
But sadly, those days are gone. Feingold has been replaced by a Republican, Ron Johnson; Rep. Paul Ryan (R) has become the darling of House conservatives, having authored a budget bill that would destroy Medicare as we know it, and as recently as last year, the UW's Madison campus tried to cancel a panel of anti-war speakers because they hadn't paid an unconstitutional "security fee."
And then, of course, there's Gov. Scott Walker who, after giving millions of dollars in tax breaks to small businesses, claimed that the state was going broke, and demanded that public employee unions give up their collective bargaining rights—a move that led to six Republican state senators facing recall elections over the next few months—and while still in office, passing laws to make it more difficult for students and other to vote, cut hundreds of millions of dollars from state Medicaid services, expand costly school voucher programs, and make it easier to carry a concealed weapon.
So ... one might think, with all of Wisconsin's money woes, the Middleton-Cross Plains School Board might have thought twice before renewing its attempts to fire science teacher Andrew Harris, seven other high school teachers and one school administrator simply because the district had discovered porn and "other inappropriate adult content, including nudity and sexual jokes," among their emails during the fall of 2009—especially if that fight were going to cost the school district over $300,000 in legal bills.
"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," wrote Gena Kittner for the Madison.com website. "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."
Part of the problem is, while Harris and a substitute teacher were fired over the material—23 emails over the previous year containing "pornographic images, videos and inappropriate jokes"—two teachers were simply given warnings, five other staff members were given unpaid suspensions, none more than 12 days long, and the charged administrator quit—a disparity that the local teachers' union grieved before an arbitrator.
"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."
However, "Every dollar that goes toward arbitration is taken away from education programming," said School Superintendent Don Johnson. "It's unfortunate. There's no doubt that this is a significant distraction."
Moreover, there is no allegation that Harris or anyone else showed the material to school children—and news radio station WTAQ noted that "some say" the Harris grievance is "holding up negotiations on a new teacher contract."
The Harris case may also be affecting legislation currently before both the state Assembly and Senate education committees that would strip the licenses from teachers who look at porn on their work computers. The bill, sponsored in the Assembly by Rep. Steve Kestell and in the Senate by Sen. Luther Olsen, would add porn viewing to existing rules allowing teachers to lose their licenses for incompetency or "immoral conduct," the latter being defined as "anything contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare, or education of any pupil."
But of course, the bill may be unnecessary; Gov. Walker wants the power to fire any teacher for any reason anyway, and unless the recall petitions are successful, he may just get it.