State agency finds probable cause Milwaukee Public Schools violated hiring laws based on retaliation complaint

Posted: 5:00 PM, Jan 18, 2022
Updated: 2022-01-20 10:07:00-05
Milwaukee Public School district sign

MILWAUKEE — A state agency has found probable cause that an administrator at Milwaukee Public Schools violated state employment laws.

Officials with the Equal Rights Division, which operates under the state's Department of Workforce Development, responded to a complaint filed in 2019 regarding a hire investigators believe may have been at least partially based on race. It followed a complaint filed by an administrator accusing a then high-ranking member of the central office of retaliation.

The ERD issued a statement of probable cause following a complaint made by Deborah Bowling, the Fine Arts Manager at MPS.

Bowling's case is now awaiting a decision by an administrative law judge, who will decide if MPS retaliated against her for speaking up about a potentially unlawful hiring decision made by her supervisor, then interim Chief Academic Officer Jeremiah Holiday.

In March of last year, the ERD issued the determination there was probable cause the district violated Wisconsin's Fair Employment Law, citing discriminatory actions laid out by Bowling in an ERD complaint.

According to the division's report, Bowling opposed a decision by Holiday to hire a Black applicant based on his race for a job she oversaw. The report stated Holiday, “Referenced the racial composition of the complainant's staff as the basis for his eventual decision to hire the non-qualified candidate.”

An investigation by the city attorney's office (which represents the district in legal matters like these) in January of 2020 substantiated Bowling's claim that Holiday unlawfully made a hiring decision she opposed based "at least in part, upon his race, in violation of law and district policy."

While the city attorney investigated her claims, Bowling stated in her ERD complaint that Holiday "continued to harass and bully her.”

During the investigation, Bowling was reassigned to work at Project Stay at the Milwaukee County Youth Education Center in the jail. It was a move she believed was retaliatory.

Bowling says at the time, she was told by a chief administrator that no one else was available to take the position.

The ERD reports the transfer was "unjustified," noting that "multiple individuals applied" for the position.

The city attorney's office did not substantiate the claim that the reassignment was retaliatory. However, in its report, the city attorney’s office wrote that while remaining allegations were unsubstantiated in isolation, "When taken together they join a larger mosaic of allegations regarding the reported historical conduct of Dr. Holiday, which does raise some cause for concern.”

Bowling's attorney declined to comment on her complaint, saying the documents speak for themselves.

Another MPS administrator, Deb Kuether, has come forward with similar complaints regarding Jeremiah Holiday after she was also reassigned.

“This isn't about me just look across this happens to a lot of people,” Kuether said.

Kuether was the Manager of K-12 Literacy under Holiday.

She says she was part of a group of administrators who raised concerns about Holiday to the school board.

“A group of us were very concerned because we were constantly being told there was no money for resources, for instructional resources,” Kuether said. “So these are things like textbooks. Digital content. Things that students and teachers need to access, content for school we told there was no money for that.”

Kuether says after making the complaint she faced harassment under Holiday, and was eventually reassigned to a special assignment at Washington High School. There she says she was frozen out of communication with other administrators, had no job title, no assignments, nor access to the internet or phone connection.

“The special assignment is not new to me,” Kuether said. “It's actually something that is dangled in front of staff regularly to intimidate them from saying things.”

She also filed an ERD complaint. In response, the city attorney's office wrote it found no evidence Kuether faced discrimination or retaliation, requesting a finding of no probable cause.

The city attorney's response said Kuether's transfer came from Superintendent Keith Posley, who denied her reassignment was retaliatory. He said in the response he only instructed the transfer to a high school to ensure there was no change in her pay.

Kuether states in her response to Posley and the district’s denials that the MPS Office of Accountability and Efficiency believed she was the subject of a hostile work environment, reporting, “ individual involved in this transfer could provide supporting documentation to justify or provide a basis for the move."

She also showed the I-Team emails between her and former school board member Tony Baez. He told Kuether, “...know that there will be some serious conversations directly with Dr. Posley about this - something that I see as extreme retaliation” adding later, "... the matter of retaliation against employees like her was not settled."

"I've always relied on the system and I might have been mistaken to do that in this case,” Kuether said.

MPS declined to comment on these cases.

The ERD has yet to issue a determination as to if it found probable cause in Kuether's case. A DWD spokesperson says they anticipate a determination will be made later this month.

In Bowling's that same DWD spokesperson says the case is headed to mediation, pending scheduling.

Lastly, the I-Team found Holiday filed his own ERD complaint against the district naming Posley. The division did not find probable cause in his case, and it is considered closed.

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