WAUWATOSA - A former Wauwatosa teacher claims he was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation. He filed a federal lawsuit against the school district. The district "strongly denies" the allegations, and a spokesperson told us there are factual and legal elements of the case it disputes.
Former employee, John Ravenola said all he wanted to do was take care of his fiancé, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "We were each other's family." Ravenola's fiancé was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in November 2015. "It was terminal from the get go," Ravenola shared.
Doctors discovered Deborah Nykiel's cancer during a scheduled surgery. At that time, Ravenola was a phys ed teacher and coach with the Wauwatosa School District. He took 10 days paid leave to help Deborah recover. "She was actually doing pretty well after the surgery," Ravenola remembered. But the next step was an intense chemo regimen to buy Deborah more time. So Ravenola requested to use his banked sick leave to stay home and help her. "The answer I got was it doesn't apply to the policy. We have policies we have to stick to."
The district's policy for using sick leave allowed employees to care for a spouse, child, parent or domestic partner. Ravenola and his fiancé could not register as domestic partners, because Milwaukee County only recognized same-sex couples. "The only thing we were missing was the marriage license. We did everything as a couple," Ravenola said.
An employee of 17 years, Ravenola was still hopeful when the district told him he could appeal to the school board. His request was discussed in a closed session. The minutes from that meeting state the board would not consider the matter further. "I felt betrayed. I felt like they turned their back on me," Ravenola told us.
At this point, he was taking unpaid leave which meant Ravenola had no health insurance. "I started looking at finances, and said I gotta do something." Deborah had started chemo and was going downhill fast. Ravenola claimed he was told the district would probably not approve another month away from his job. He felt his only option was to retire. "I just felt like I had the weight of the world on my shoulders."
Ravenola's retirement as a teacher was official, February 1st of 2016. Deborah passed away, February 4th. After taking some time to process his loss and the district's decision, Ravenola says he had to take the next step. "I never, in my entire life, dreamed I would ever have to sue anybody." His federal lawsuit against the Wauwatosa School District was filed in October.
Brenda Lewison is Ravenola's attorney. "He doesn't want anyone else to ever have to suffer the challenges that he did," she pointed out. She said the district could have made an exception or changed its policy. "Tosa has discriminated on the basis of John's sex. There's a constitutional claim that can be brought."
Ravenola says he made a promise to his fiancé of eight years to hold his former employer accountable, "if they're not ever allowed to do this to somebody else again then I've won."
Ravenola would like his benefits to be based on his original retirement plan, which was June of this year. If he wins the lawsuit, he's also eligible for some compensation. Ravenola's attorney also filed a case under the Wisconsin Fair Employment Act. The attorney for the Wauwatosa School District responded to that case stating, "because the district's sick leave policy treats males and females equally, it does not violate the state act."