Janesville principal accused of improprieties is allowed to resign

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Thursday, August 26, 2010
— John Walczak will be allowed to resign from his job with the Janesville School District rather than be fired, and he’ll be paid $10,000.

The district, meanwhile, is avoiding the costs of a public hearing where Walczak could have fought to keep his job.

That’s part of an agreement between Walczak and the district that the school board approved unanimously in a closed meeting Tuesday. The agreement also includes a $10,000 lump sum payment to Walczak.

Superintendent Karen Schulte ended Walczak’s employment with the district July 15. But her decision was subject to the approval of the Janesville School Board, board President Bill Sodemann said.

After an investigation that began in May, Schulte accused Walczak of violating the district’s sexual-harassment policy and ethical-conduct policies.

District employees, including many at Jackson School, where Walczak was principal, accused him of sexual harassment, bullying and other unprofessional conduct.

Schulte and Sodemann offered to discuss the settlement with the Gazette on Wednesday.

The law gave Walczak the right to a hearing before the school board, they said, and he requested one that would have been open to the public.

The settlement avoids paying Walczak his salary and related benefits for about two months, as the hearing would have gone nearly to the end of September, Sodemann said. That’s a savings of about $17,000, plus an estimated $20,000 in attorney’s fees, both for a lawyer to act as prosecutor and another to advise the school board during the hearing, Sodemann said.

Administrative time to prepare for the hearings would have been a cost as well, Schulte said.

If Walczak had lost at the hearing and appealed the decision, that would have meant more costs, Sodemann noted.

Schulte said she felt strongly that she didn’t want to have teachers going through the stress of testifying about sensitive topics at a public hearing.

“We didn’t want to spend any more money than we had to, obviously, and we didn’t want to put the teachers through any more grief,” Sodemann said.

“They were courageous to come forward as it was,” Schulte said.

Among other terms:

-- Walczak waives his right to sue the district over the termination or any other event that occurred during his employment.

-- The district waives its right to sue Walczak over any matter touching on his employment with the district.

-- The district will cover his health insurance costs through Sept. 30, which amounts to nearly $2,600, Sodemann said.

-- The district will not contest Walczak’s claim for unemployment compensation. Sodemann said the best legal advice was that the district would lose that battle and incur attorney fees in the process.

-- Neither side admits any wrongdoing.

-- Walczak reserves the right to publicly address any statements about his resignation or employment “to protect his professional and personal reputation.”

The agreement does not forbid either party from discussing the matter in public, so if anyone calls for a reference on Walczak, Schulte would be able to discuss the reasons for his leaving the district, including what he was accused of, Schulte said.

Sodemann said being able to resign does not let Walczak off the hook because records still would be publicly available.

Former Jackson principal says allegations are false

John Walczak says he didn’t do it.

The former principal of Janesville’s Jackson School said the school district’s accusations of sexual harassment and bullying of staff members are exaggerated or just wrong.

Walczak’s first public statements since being placed on administrative leave in May came in a telephone interview with the Gazette on Wednesday.

He might have said things that were misunderstood, Walczak said.

“Did I say something to make somebody uncomfortable, to shock somebody? Absolutely not. … I’m not about making people uncomfortable. I’m not about embarrassing people.”

Walczak said he did not sleep on a couch at a conference in Green Bay because he was hung over. He said no one was allowed into the session after the seats were filled, so he stayed out, and that was the only session he missed.

He should have found another session to attend, he said. Instead, he called his secretary to check in on Jackson, he said.

Walczak denied commenting to a colleague about her breasts, something four people said happened.

“I honestly do not remember saying that, and if I did, it was completely inappropriate, it was completely out of line,” he said.

Recalling incidents is difficult because the district’s documents do not give dates and places for most of the incidents, Walczak said.

Some teachers accused him of never visiting their classrooms.

“That is absolutely not true, and that bothers me a lot.”

Walczak said he made a point of visiting every teacher last fall at least once to give quick feedback on teaching issues, and he let everyone know in advance that he was coming.

Walczak said he knows certain staff members at Jackson didn’t like him, but he would not discuss why. He said he had been working with his superiors on that issue.

Walczak criticized the investigation process, which he said left him in the dark for weeks.

“When Dr. Schulte called me on the morning of May 27, I had no idea, and I even told her, I’m shocked. I’m blown over by this. I didn’t have any idea what the issues were.

“It frustrates me that I still don’t know what the original allegation was against me,” Walczak said.

Superintendent Karen Schulte responded that she had been hearing “bits and pieces” about Walczak about two months before he was placed on administrative leave at the end of May.

People—men and women—were saying that they felt uncomfortable at Jackson and that they didn’t want to work there, Schulte said, but specifics were hard to come by.

Eventually, Schulte said, she learned enough to have “a high level of concern and anxiety” for Jackson staff, and that’s when she placed Walczak on paid leave, but she still didn’t have specifics.

That might be why the reasons for the investigation sounded vague to Walczak and his attorney, Schulte said.

Walczak complained that the interviews of staff members, conducted by Manager of Employee Relations Angel Tullar, were not recorded.

“My career was in the balance, my livelihood was in the balance, and we have nothing to go back to other than what is in her notes and her interpretations, perhaps, of what people were saying,” Walczak said.

“She took copious notes, very detailed, so I have no concern about how she investigated,” Schulte responded. “There’s nothing that says we have to use a recording.”

Walczak complained that when he was called in to respond to the allegations, he was told he couldn’t ask questions about what was being asked of him, and he was given only 60 minutes to respond.

The district’s lawyer, Sara Gehrig, said Walczak’s attorney, who didn’t have any more time to spare that day, set the 60-minute limit.

Gehrig said Walczak’s lawyer was asking questions about process, not about the accusations, and Gehrig did not want to get into that because she had only 60 minutes for Walczak to respond.

Gehrig said she asked Walczak if there was anyone else she should talk to, and he said no. She gave him several more days for someone to come forward, but none did, Gehrig said.

“I’m not going to say people came out and lied. … I believe, in reading many of these things, many things were exaggerated, many things were added to,” Walczak said.

Walczak admitted he stayed out too late partying with staff members after parent-teacher conferences last fall. And he did sing the profane lyrics to the song “Crazy Bitch.”

“That was inappropriate,” Walczak said, but he said he did not play that song on the jukebox, as he is accused of doing.

Walczak said Steve Sperry, director of human and administrative services, talked to him in early December last year, telling him that if he goes out with staff members, he must remember that he is still their principal, that he should not stay out too late, should watch his selection of music, “and maybe it’s not a great idea if you buy drinks for people.”

Walczak said he took Sperry’s words to heart and didn’t stay long at a staff Christmas party.

Walczak said whenever anyone has brought concerns about his behavior to his attention, he has acknowledged missteps and taken pains to change. He said he wishes staff members who have accused him—sometimes months after the events—instead would have confronted him at the time.

“I know that sounds like a cop-out, but how can I fix something if I didn’t know that was a problem?”

And if the allegations about the partying incident were so serious, why didn’t Sperry deal with them to the same degree at the time? Walczak asked.

Staff members also accused Walczak of bullying them or intimidating them or being hard on certain teachers.

Walczak said he never banged his hand on a table, as he was accused of, but he said he has a habit of making a fist to make a point.

He said he was under pressure to raise test scores, and he was trying to get teachers to change their practices. He said his straightforward, forceful style was different from Jackson’s previous principal, and people might have misinterpreted.

Walczak said that when he agreed to drop his lawsuit to stop the release of documents about the district’s investigation, he thought he would have a chance to respond, but the story came out in the Gazette before he could.

“My career is pretty much, in education, is over because of all of this,” he said. “Because of the way it came out in the press, my reputation is, at least now and perhaps forever, will be irreparably damaged.”

Walczak said he has applied for many jobs, both in and out of education, but he has gotten no requests for interviews.

State interested in case

The Department of Public Instruction is looking into the case of a former Janesville principal who resigned.

The state is not formally investigating, department spokesman Patrick Gasper said, but the state has requested documents from the school district.

The department wants to find out whether John Walczak engaged in immoral conduct, as defined by state law, Gasper said Wednesday.

If the department determines it is possible that Walczak engaged in immoral conduct, it would open formal investigation that could lead to a revocation of Walczak’s school administrator license, Gasper said.

Immoral conduct, according to state statutes, “means conduct or behavior that is contrary to commonly accepted moral or ethical standards and that endangers the health, safety, welfare or education of any pupil.”

The school district has not accused Walczak of doing anything to directly harm students.

Last updated: 2:38 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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