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Cedarburg case shows why control 
of schools belongs to elected officials

September 27, 2006

Robert Zellner shouldnít be fired from his Cedarburg teaching job for viewing Internet porn at school but his case does manage to demonstrate the impossibility of ever firing a teacher in Wisconsin for anything. Teachers union members have amazing job protections. The fact that his principal, superintendent, school board and most community members want him canned is virtually irrelevant. An arbitrator, elected by no one and accountable to nobody, has said Zellner canít even be punished. Voters and taxpayers have lost control of their schools to union bosses and bureaucrats.

Zellner was caught using Cedarburg High School computers to visit pornographic Web sites. How many times he did it and how many sites he visited are in dispute but both sides acknowledge it happened when school was closed and with no one else viewing. What we have here is a married guy with prurient interests who was more concerned about being caught by his wife than his bosses. What he did is wrong and he ought to be punished but it seems to be an overreaction to fire him.

The sites Zellner visited were evidently legal and did not involve child pornography. But it is absolutely inappropriate to use taxpayer-funded computers to view them. A reasonable response would be to suspend Zellner for a few weeks without pay. For a lot of reasons, the school board wants to be harsher. Zellner is a leader of the union and has bucked the board on several other issues including a wrong-headed firing of a basketball coach. Theyíre clearly looking for an excuse to get rid of him.

But the state arbitrator who handled Zellnerís appeal of his firing was even more off-base. The arbitrator ruled that because the district did not fire another teacher who used the computer to check stock quotes, Zellner shouldnít be singled out for a similar violation. Only a Wisconsin bureaucrat could equate checking the price on Chevron with skulking around on a porno site. So, both sides are wrong here. But that really isnít the point.

Tough decisions like this ought to be made by elected officials. The publicís input deserves to be heard. What may be acceptable behavior in Madison or Shorewood may be intolerable by residents of Cedarburg or Cedar Grove. The officials elected by voters in these communities ought to apply the standards of their local standards. If the public doesnít like the decision, it has recourse at the ballot box.

Turning over all of these decisions to arbitrators who work for a Madison-based department compels all of us to accept the standards of the stateís looniest city. Teachers want to be called "professionals" but insist on the same job protections as tradesmen.

The school board in Cedarburg is overreacting and Zellner is being punished for things other than his X-rated Web surfing. But the school board, not Zellner or an arbitrator, is charged with running the school system and ought to be given the freedom to do so.

* * *

Zellnerís case is the latest example of someone doing something on the Internet theyíd never do anywhere else. If Zellner was afraid of his wife learning he likes to look at dirty pictures, he almost certainly would never go to an adult bookstore or order his smut from a mail order outfit. But the Internet somehow seemed "different" to him. Itís a fascinating social phenomenon that so many people are risking their lives and careers doing things on the Web that they otherwise would be terrified to deal with.

* * *

Whatís really obscene isnít the Web sites Zellner was viewing but the way Jim Doyle has co-opted supposedly independent branches of state government to stack the deck against Republican opponent Mark Green.

They changed the rules to make Greenís use of federal campaign funds "illegal" just so Doyle could say "Green broke the law." Every one of the rulings made in this case has come from individuals appointed by Doyle.

The state Elections Board that retroactively barred federal campaign funds in state campaigns is controlled by Democratic appointees and the decisive vote was made by a Doyle designee. The Dane County judge who Monday refused to overturn the ruling is a Doyle appointee. If Green appeals to the state Supreme Court, the decisive vote is likely to be made by Justice Louis Butler, a Doyle appointee. The witches in Salem had better shots than Green.

It wasnít always this way. The Republican-controlled Elections Board four years ago allowed Tom Barrett, in an identical case, to use federal campaign funds in his state race. There isnít a single case anyone can cite of a state court judge appointed by a Republican governor making a blatantly unfair ruling to aid his political sponsor. Nope, this sleaziness is a further extension of Jim Doyleís perverted use of his political power. State contracts have been sold and public policy reversed to aid the governorís contributors. Individuals with issues pending before state agencies have been shaken down by Doyle fund-raisers. Now, the very institutions charged with following the law and protecting our elections are taking orders from Doyle.

Doyle may be re-elected governor of Wisconsin, but it isnít the same state as the one he won in 2002.

(Mark Belling is the host of a daily WISN radio talk show and a Sunday television show. His column runs Wednesdays in The Freeman.)


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