Music Teacher Fights Termination, Sues Waukesha School District
Heyer Elementary School teacher contends district acted improperly in not renewing her contract for 2012-13 school year.
A music teacher who was facing legal and professional troubles is claiming the Waukesha School District acted in bad faith and in a discriminatory manner when the district did not renew her contract for the 2012-13 school year.
Karn Orner, a music teacher at Heyer Elementary School, filed a civil complaint against the School District of Waukesha in Waukesha Circuit Court on April 30. Orner is seeking relief from what she claims is breach of contract and breach of good faith and fair dealing by the school district. She also is asking for reinstatement of her position for 2012-13.
The complaint states that during the non-renewal process, the administration began looking for information to support Orner’s non-renewal and used "discriminatory, prejudicial information" at the non-renewal hearing. This information became the sole basis upon which the School District of Waukesha chose to not renew Orner’s employment, the complaint alleges. Additionally, the information was referenced on more than one occasion during the non-renewal hearing, the complaint states.
This “inflammatory, irrelevant and highly prejudicial information” made it impossible for Orner to have a fair hearing, according to the complaint, and the school district did so in bad faith and in intentional disregard of Orner’s rights.
Furthermore, according to the complaint, the district intentionally failed to maintain “meaningful minutes.” The lack of record reflecting deliberation on the non-renewal decision avoids a record, which would have disclosed the "discriminatory" evidence and statements made by administration and school board members regarding Orner’s non-renewal, according to the complaint.
The school board voted 7-1 in favor of Orner’s non-renewal, with Board Member Barbara Brzenk casting the dissenting vote. Board Member Ellen Langill was not in attendance, the court records state.
A public search of Orner in Wisconsin Circuit Courts has a record of her arrest and plea of no contest to a misdemeanor charge of operating while intoxicated-second offence for an incident last August in New Berlin. Her sentencing hearing is June 11. Use of this information in regard to her employment, if not "substantially related" to the circumstances of her job, could be considered discriminatory, according to Wisconsin’s fair employment laws.
Superintendent Todd Gray declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Parents Urged District to Renew Contract
Six people spoke on Orner’s behalf at the closed hearing about her non-renewal, according to court documents. Nine people spoke on her behalf during the public comment portion of the April school board meeting.
One of the speakers, parent Timothy Andringa, an attorney who has since the meeting filed the complaint against the district on Orner’s behalf, said he spoke to tell the district that they had made a mistake in not renewing Orner’s contract.
“I believe, having reviewed the open records, that she was wrongly targeted for non-renewal,” he said. “The conduct of the administration in this appalls me as a parent.”
When asked about Orner’s contention that the district used inappropriate information to make its decision, Andringa paused before answering.
“My understanding is that information was used at the meeting that had nothing to do with her teaching but in my opinion had everything to do with the decision that was made. And that’s unacceptable,” Andringa said.
Furthermore, the district has no minutes that show the basis for the decision to not renew Orner’s contract, according to Andringa.
All the people who spoke at the meeting knew about her “personal situation,” Andringa said. He characterized her as popular with students and families and willing to make extra effort on behalf of her students.
“Karn Orner is a good teacher,” he said.
“She was wrong on that day,” he said, referring to the arrest and added that it’s had a substantially negative impact on her personal life.
“But it’s wrong to use it to ruin her professionally, too,” he said.
“Nothing relates her behavior that day to her teaching,” Andringa said. “Why was it even investigated?"
Spring Concert Cancelation Leads to Problems
A change in school administration for the 2011-12 school year led to the professional problems when she was told the spring concert she was planning since the past school year was canceled, according to Orner’s complaint and court records. The decision, records state, was “non-negotiable.”
According to Orner's complaint and court records, in December of 2011, Principal Michael Sukawaty, who replaced former Principal Gregg Deets as principal for 2011-12, informed school district administration via an email that Orner should be renewed for the 2012-13 school year.
Following the meeting where the concert was canceled, according to the complaint, Sukawaty decided Orner’s “demeanor at the meeting was unacceptable” and he sought the opinion of and assistance from Christine Hedstrom, school district assistant superintendent for human and labor relations.
Orner was surprised by news that the spring concert was to be cancelled and was disappointed and, although there wasn’t any profanity, she may have raised her voice, Andringa said.
“But you should be able to have a professional disagreement,” Andringa said. “It never affected her relationship with students. It was never going to affect how she was going to teach kids.”
What happened after the meeting, however, “snowballed” between Orner and the administration unnecessarily, according to Andringa.
What he doesn’t understand, he said, that if she was such a bad teacher, why did they want to renew her in December and, secondly, why would they allow her to teach but place special conditions on her?
Placed on Probation
Following subsequent meetings attended by Orner, school district administration and Education Association of Waukesha President Elizabeth Keadle, the school district offered Orner probationary renewal for 2012-13, with what the complaint calls “discriminatory terms and conditions” that were “unduly harsh.”
According to the complaint, under the terms of her probationary renewal Orner was to “consistently address her colleagues and principal in a warm and friendly manner (open body language, warm vocal tone, sustained eye contact, smiling), she will issue courtesy statements each and every time she encounters another staff member.”
She would also have been required to keep a daily log of all contact she had with staff and adults and review the diary with Sukawaty or others weekly, according to the complaint.
Orner declined to accept the terms of the probationary renewal. The school district then gave Orner notice of her non-renewal, citing a lack of satisfactory performance as a teacher, according to court documents. Orner requested a hearing about her non-renewal and that the meeting be an open meeting so others could attend and speak on her behalf, according to the complaint.
However, the complaint alleges that the district did not want the hearing to be open and intentionally noticed the hearing for a closed session. Orner learned of the closed session the night of the hearing and was told that if she did not want to proceed, the hearing would have to be postponed since the meeting was noticed for a closed session, according to the complaint.
Orner began her employment at Heyer in August 2009, receiving two exemplary reviews, in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years from Deets, Heyer’s principal at the time. Orner has held a teacher’s license since 2003 and previous taught at Holy Apostles in New Berlin.