MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin's largest public school district is facing a second allegation of misconduct from top officials.
The newest Equal Rights Division statement of probable cause says there is enough verifiable evidence that former Interim Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Jeremiah Holiday, and other top Milwaukee Public Schools officials retaliated against a whistleblower. This, after The I-Team first broke the story in January of statement of probable cause that Holiday violated state employment laws.
Deborah Kuether, the Director of K-12 Literacy for the district, alleges she was discriminated against for her race and sex and faced retaliation for speaking out about Holiday’s qualifications. When Holiday, a Black man, was promoted by Superintendent Keith Posley in 2019, Kuether, a white woman, says she wrote complaints to the school board about Holiday’s “incompetence” and her belief the promotion was “race based.”
After these complaints, Kuether claims she faced retaliatory actions by Holiday and Posley.
“My duty, when I was in my position as manager of literacy, was to ensure the students of Milwaukee Public Schools Pre-K through 12 had what they needed to be in a high-quality literacy program,” Kuether tells the I-Team. “Unfortunately, that was sacrificed and jeopardized on many occasions in favor of discriminating against me. They made decisions not to put the kids first.”
The statement of probable cause is the next step in determining whether Kuether’s claims are valid. The document filed by the ERD, supports Kuether’s accusation of being relegated to a less desirable post at Washington High School. She was reassigned to the school but she says she had no job title, no assignments, no internet, no phone connection and the space was unsanitary.
“It was a filthy, disgusting space that was not prepared for COVID,” Kuether said. “My ability to work there wasn’t even possible because there was no working phone, no working internet, no working computer.”
The investigator says Kuether’s claims are believable. It says, in part, “When taken as a whole, the employment actions taken against [Kuether] may suggest that [Milwaukee Public Schools] was motivated by discriminatory and/or retaliatory animus. It is believable that the reassignment of [Kuether’s] subordinates; reassignment of her job duties; and the lack of communication from Dr. Holiday may have been due to [Kuether’s] race, sex, and/or participation in a protected activity. Although [Milwaukee Public Schools] has denied that the employment actions were based upon a discriminatory or retaliatory motive, [Milwaukee Public Schools] own internal investigation confirms a discriminatory work environment created by Dr. Holiday (but [Milwaukee Public Schools] failed to address these issues promptly with Dr. Holiday.)”
“The government here is saying there is smoke,” Ben Hitchcock Cross, Kuether’s attorney said. “They’re not saying there is fire yet. There is reason to investigate and look forward and we have the chance to prove there is fire; that they did discriminate.”
Hitchcock Cross says this is a big step forward for their case against MPS. In addition to the claims being deemed believable, the ERD investigator says the transfer to Washington High School by Holiday and MPS may have suggested a retaliatory motive.
"Further, it is believable that once she was assigned to Washington High School, there was not a plan for her job assignments or hours, and she was recorded and assigned to an unfavorable office. The actions of the transfer to Washington High School, coupled with the circumstances when she arrived, may suggest that the Respondent was motivated by retaliation and/or discrimination."
Kuether’s team provided photos of her assignment at Washington High School. It includes what they referred to as a rodent’s nest and an unkempt desk with used bottles of water, latex gloves and a pocketknife in the desk. The investigator’s claims affirm the lack of a plan for Kuether once she arrived at her reassignment to Washington High School. It further explains how Kuether’s title was diminished by removing those beneath her.
“We’re confident we can prove they retaliated against her because she made bona fide discrimination complaints and that there is a race issue and sex issue at MPS,” Hitchcock Cross said. “They claimed they had to move her specifically to Washington High School for, again, the needs of the students. The investigator rightly smelled that was not correct because when she got there, there was no way for her to do any work. They dispute whether it was punitive but there is no dispute that there was no ability for her to do anything for any students at that location.”
Hitchcock Cross says the next step is to depose all involved. First, they will question the investigator and then, he says, high ranking officials within MPS will be called to testify, including Superintendent Posley, Dr. Holiday and others.
“They’ll no longer be able to hide behind documents that are confusing,” Hitchcock Cross said. “They’ll no longer be able to withhold documents. They’ll have to answer, straight out, what exactly they did to Dr. Kuether. Why they did it and the board is going to have to answer, why they investigated this. Why they were presented a report on this and still did nothing. Individual board members promised to do something about this and did nothing. They’ll have to answer why. Deb Kuether has met her burden that it’s more likely than not that MPS discriminated and retaliated against her.”
The I-Team requested interviews with Posley and Holiday, but MPS declined an interview due to ongoing litigation and Holiday did not respond to our requests.
The ERD statement of probable cause does question Kuether’s role in how this played out. MPS called her hostile, disrespectful and combative. Hitchcock Cross says Kuether’s record is excellent, and these accusations only started after Kuether filed her complaint against Holiday. It’s something that offends Kuether and her work.
“That is the first time the word combative has ever been used to describe my work and me,” Kuether said. “If you were to look at my file, you’ll see that I have an exemplary file for 27 years. It wasn’t until after I made those complaints that certain people started to deflect from the issues and use that word to describe me.”
Her attorney says this is about principle to Kuether. She’s not in it for a pay day. She wants her job back as Director of Literacy and for MPS to have a public account for what they did to her.
“It was very intimidating to me,” Kuether said. “I was worried for my livelihood and everything that I’ve invested into the work that I love to do. I’m still concerned about that. Even though I’m not physically there, I am so concerned about the students getting what they need. I don’t think they are. To me, working with kids is the way that you make the world change. That’s the investment that one person can give to another. Helping to expose them to everything that’s knowledge in the world so that they can grow into their own person. Unfortunately, for whatever motivations, they made decisions not to put the kids first.”
Hitchcock Cross says he and MPS are set to go in front of an Administrative Judge next Friday, Feb. 11.