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I-Team: MPS 'work conditions are the worst they have ever been' report on retaliation shows

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Posted at 5:13 PM, Mar 07, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-08 06:44:51-05

MILWAUKEE — The I-Team has learned new details regarding a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) administrator’s retaliation complaint, and how the school board received information regarding them.

Deb Kuether, who was the manager of K-12 literature at MPS’ Office of Academics, spoke to the I-Team about alleged retaliation she faced from her supervisor, then Interim Chief Academic Officer Jeremiah Holiday.

"I'm glad to see the report has been released," Kuether said. "It does confirm and validate everything I have been saying to this point. That's exciting. I'm also looking forward to see what happens as a result of the report. Everyone is excited to hear there is a light shined on this administration."

Kuether was reassigned to Washington High School, a less desirable position, after questioning if Holiday was qualified to hold the position of Chief Academic Officer.

According to notes obtained by the I-Team from the district’s Senior Manager of the Office of Accountability and Efficiency (OAE) Matthew Chason, in November of 2019 the school board would not approve Holiday’s appointment outright to the position, instead making him the interim chief, despite an ongoing investigation by the City Attorney's Office.

Chason called the move a policy gap, saying there is no policy or law to allow the board to do that.

Less than two months after the appointment, the city attorney's investigation reported, “It was a near universal sentiment that the work group under Dr. Holiday is a toxic and hostile work environment. It was commonly reported that the current work conditions are the worst they have ever been, by far and without exception. That the employees under Dr. Holiday operate in fear, intimidation, and under a watchful eye that scrutinizes every move, where he publicly ridicules for every blunder, real or fabricated.”

This information was provided to the school board but, according to Kuether's attorney, no action was taken.

"There is no question the board has ratified that toxic culture," Attorney Ben Hitchcock Cross said. "From Holiday to Posley to the school board, on every level it is approved and okay to go after whistleblowers at MPS."

Kuether is one of three whistleblowers the I-Team has been made aware of. Hitchcock Cross says this most recent report by the OAE is a victory in providing protection for whistleblowers at MPS and a step towards holding those in charge accountable.

"There is no question this document, that they've had since last January, confirms everything Dr. Kuether has said," Hitchcock Cross said. "All of her complaints have been put to the board as early as January. They were aware of them and did absolutely nothing in response. All of her complaints have been verified by MPS internally and substantiated."

Kuether, while optimistic about the progress, she remains highly concerned she has heard no response from the top administrators at Wisconsin's largest public school.

"I feel invisible," Kuether said. "Not significant at all. It's like I'm just a nuisance to the work that's trying to be accomplished. It's not one or two things. This is a lot of wrongdoing. It is fundamentally problematic. I want [MPS] to be a place where students are first and that we follow the processes and the laws that govern the work that public education is committed to."

The City Attorney's investigation was a result of a complaint filed by Deborah Bowling, the Fine Arts Manager at MPS. After she came forward with concerns about Holiday, she was temporarily reassigned to a position at the Milwaukee County Jail, a move she alleged was retaliatory. She was moved back to her position as Fine Arts Manager. The state Equal Rights Division found her claims credible and issued a determination of probable cause.

He was instructed to attend leadership training, however, despite the city attorney’s report in January, that did not take place until November of 2020.

Chason informed the board that despite leadership training, his office continued to receive whistleblower complaints after Holiday was assigned leadership training.

Data from an open records request released along with the report shows whistleblower complaints are on the rise, from five in 2019, 14 in 2020 and 19 in 2021.

“Through a policy lens, the Board's rejection of a recommended appointment should not result in that individual holding that position indefinitely on an interim basis," Chason told the board.

Along with the concerns regarding Holiday, it detailed a retaliation complaint filed by a whistleblower, who the I-Team has learned is Kuether.

Chason writes Kuether's move to Washington High School was capricious and retaliatory, stating, “The District will provide a minimum of two weeks advance notice of any changes to work schedules. Whistleblower ‘A’ [Kuether] received one business day's notice in advance of the change to work assignment.”

Kuether is the only whistleblower to have come out publicly and talk about her case. She says it can be overwhelming to take on the district for something this serious, but because of the repeated stories of discrimination and retaliation she has been part of over the last couple of months, she is getting support from both people near and far.

"People contact me and say, we just want you to know, we may not be able to come out and publicly support you, but want you to know there are thousands of people rooting you on behind the scenes," Kuether said. "Just keep going."

The district declined to comment multiple times to the I-Team's request regarding this case and others in the district.

In a response to Kuether’s complaint, the city attorney's office says Chason did not consult with Posley or other employees connected to Kuether’s case before calling it retaliation, blaming the move on Kuether’s “problematic communication.”

However, Chason notes Kuether’s “poor team engagement” was not reported until after her complaint was filed with the ERD.

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