A nationally recognized teacher in Wisconsin is in danger of being fired by the local school board after the district's superintendent recommended her termination following a controversy that enraged local school administrators.
The teacher called attention to a decision by administrators to bar her class from performing an uncontroversial song about inclusion.
In response to Melissa Tempel’s criticism of Waukesha Schools’ decision to bar Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton’s “Rainbowland” from a spring concert, the superintendent has recommended that she be terminated.
Last Monday, Superintendent James Sebert informed her of the news, Tempel tells The Advocate.
On April 3, after Tempel spoke to the media about the school’s decision to not allow her students to sing the bop, the district placed her on leave.
To become effective, Sebert’s recommendation would need Waukesha School Board approval.
In a letter sent to Sebert and the school board last month, Wisconsin state school superintendent Jill Underly expressed deep concern about the harm the district had caused by banning the song and suggested that the district reverse its decision to enforce its policy on controversial issues in the classroom, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinelreports.
Based on a letter Sebert wrote in 2021, classrooms are forbidden from displaying posters supporting Pride, Black Lives Matter, Thin Blue Line, and similar topics. According to Sebert, the song violated the policy and was banned.
In March, Sebert said the song was removed due to “whether it was appropriate for the age and maturity level of the students” and because of “social or personal impacts” on them.
As Underly pointed out in her letter, “Whether you realize it or not, you are, under the guise of protection, causing undue harm to students and staff. However, this damage is reversible. It is paramount that you change course now.”
“The decisions you have made as district leaders have intensified the stressors our teachers feel and helped create and continue to perpetuate a toxic environment,” she said.
Tempel tells The Advocate that although a district administrator advised her not to speak with other employees, students, parents, or members of the public about her leave when she found out she was being recommended for termination, she issued a statement after learning of her purported fate.
The Alliance for Education in Waukesha — a group of parents — filed a complaint against Sebert earlier this year, alleging he had discriminated against LGBTQ+ students and staff.
Tempel says her options are to ask for a hearing before the school board or await word of their decision on whether or not to accept the superintendent’s recommendation to fire the decorated teacher.
“The superintendent has recommended that I am terminated, and that’s because the school board and the superintendent seem to be one and the same in the past two years. Whatever the school board wants, the superintendent is doing. It’s not typical checks and balances,” she says. “Well, we know how with funding from the Republican party and different other organizations that are aligned with them. They then gaslight everybody into believing that what they’re pushing for is what the public wants.”
In March, school officials told Tempel that her class could not sing the Parton and Cyrus song that celebrates acceptance because it might be controversial. The song’s title, “Rainbowland,” appeared to be the source of the problem. When the principal became concerned about the tune, he checked with the school district. Following studying the song under District School Board policy, the district’s central office deemed the song too controversial.
After Tempel posted her amazement at the decision on social media, she received much national media attention, which school officials cite as a reason for her termination in the superintendent’s letter to Tempel notifying her of his decision. The Advocate has obtained and reviewed that letter.
“You failed to raise your concerns through the appropriate channels and instead took your concerns public in a manner intended to bring as much attention to the District’s decision as possible, which resulted in substantial disruption to the school environment,” Sebert wrote.
“You have significantly undermined the interests of your employer, the School District of Waukesha,” he continued. “You did so deliberately and repeatedly in this instance beginning on March 21, 2023. Such intentional misconduct, and the impact it had on the district, cannot be tolerated.”
Tempel says that she’s fairly certain that the board will vote to terminate her, which she says worries her for the mental health of her students, many of whom live with learning disabilities.
“I’m getting messages from parents saying ‘my daughter cries every morning because she wants you to be at school,’” she says. “I got another message from a parent saying, ‘My daughter goes to your classroom every day to see if you’re there.’”
Tempel says that she is considering all of her legal options to pursue litigation based on a violation of her First Amendment rights.
“I do want to say if by some miracle the school board decides not to let me go, and I mean, I know that there’s no chance of that, but if that did happen, I would go back to my classroom, she says. “I know people are going to really criticize me for this, but I would probably go back to that school because I want to be there for people there. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with the families and parents there. So many people have reached out to tell me that they support me.”
She adds, “Nobody that I know...has said, ‘Good, I’m glad you’re not there.’ Nobody.”