Kansas Liberty: 27 May 2009
Twenty-year classroom vet says Lawrence High School feared he was conservative. 'I teach my government classes straight down the middle.' Teachers' union no help.
Lawrence teacher says he was fired because of his politics
A Lawrence high school teacher believes his teaching contract was not renewed because of his conservative political views.
Tim Latham, a social studies and government teacher at Lawrence High School, said a John McCain/Sarah Palin bumper sticker on his truck may have been the first indication of his political views noticed by administration.
A few months after Latham began working as a teacher at the Lawrence school, he was called in to discuss classroom matters with an assistant principal at the school and said the discussion quickly turned into a political debate.
The discussion occurred during the final presidential campaign months of 2008, and Latham said after being prompted, he divulged his preference of the Republican McCain/Palin ticket to an assistant principal who was supporting the Democratic Barack Obama/Joe Biden campaign.
Latham said that after this discussion, he was called into the office many times and just “could not do anything right” after the incident.
“I was constantly asked if I said anything negative about Obama in the classroom,” Latham said. “But I teach my government classes straight down the middle.”
Principal of Lawrence High School, Steve Nilhas, and associate principal, Jan Gentry, did not return Kansas Liberty’s requests for comments.
Latham was in his first year of teaching at Lawrence High School but has been a teacher for almost 20 years. Prior to teaching in Kansas, Latham was a teacher in Arkansas.
“I agree that if I am a poor teacher then get rid of me, but I have never had a negative mark against me as a teacher in 19 years,” Latham said. “I have always had good evaluations. It is so blatantly obvious to anyone with their eyes open what is going on. In my opinion they have violated my civil rights.”
A junior at Lawrence High School and a student of Latham’s, Alyssa Myers, agreed that Latham did not push any political views on the students.
“He is a great teacher,” Myers told Kansas Liberty. “He is one of those teachers that keeps you interested and makes you feel like you aren’t afraid to ask questions. He likes to pull people into conversations about the topic we are studying, rather than just have students sit there and take notes.”
Myers said Latham encouraged everyone to share their perspective and opinions on topics discussed in the classroom and did not judge any students for having a particular opinion.
“He really liked for us to say what our opinions were, and they he would respond with his opinion,” she said. “It made us feel like we were talking to a real human.”
Myers said she passed a petition around school urging the administration to reconsider the non-renewal of Latham’s contract and said she easily got more than 100 signatures. Myers then sent the petition to the school’s superintendent, but has not heard back from the office.
Superintendent of USD 497 Randy Weseman also did not return Kansas Liberty's requests for comments.
David Cunningham, director of human resources for Lawrence Public Schools, said that although he was not able to discuss personnel matters, the school’s HR procedures are in compliance with state and federal law, and "were followed and the district has not discriminated against any employee.”
Latham’s Kansas National Education Association’s representative, Bruce Lindskog, affirmed that Latham had no negative marks on his teaching evaluations, but said that, because there is no hard evidence of discrimination against Latham for his political views, there are not many options for Latham in attempting to get his teaching job back.
“While we can not say unequivocally that Tim was non-renewed because of his political position, we can say he was dismissed and that no reason was given,” Lindskog told Kansas Liberty.
In Kansas, a teacher new to the state can be dismissed without any reason given within the first three years of their employment.
Lindskog said that if Latham was indeed let go because of his political views, then it would be an improper dismissal and it would be in violation of his constitutional rights. Lindskog said it was not unusual for teachers who are let go during their first years at a new school not to receive a clear reason as to why they were dismissed and said it was generally a very frustrating process to try to ascertain the reasons behind a dismissal.
“It is just a matter of logical thinking of asking what would be the likely reason, but it makes it really difficult to proceed unless we have a smoking gun,” Lindskog said. “It appears Tim was very well received by the students and the administration until they found out his political views.”
Lindskog said he had recommended Latham find other means of employment.
“We have a very thin case to work on,” he said.
Three Lawrence High School students were given the opportunity to speak about their experience of having Latham as a teacher at the USD 497 school board meeting that took place last night. Each student urged the board to reconsider the decision not to renew Latham’s contract.
Hannah Lopez, a junior at Lawrence High School, said she read a letter to board members she had written after finding out Latham was not going to be a teacher again next year at the school.
“I talked about how he made history fun for everyone and what a huge mistake it was for them to let him go,” Lopez told Kansas Liberty. “He is one of the best teachers I have ever had, if not the best.”
Lopez’s mother, Debbie, a Lawrence resident, said she had never had any problems with Latham's teaching Hannah and said she was pleasantly surprised when Hannah would come home from school excited about what she had learned in Latham’s class.
“She came home numerous times talking about what she learned in history,” Lopez told Kansas Liberty. “As a parent you rarely hear good things about teachers, and so it very much stands out when a kid really likes a teacher. She was very upset when she heard he was being let go.”
Although the USD 497 school board president and vice-president did not respond to Kansas Liberty’s request for comment, long-time board member Mary Loveland did agree to discuss last night’s meeting — without commenting on the motivation for dismissing Latham.
“I can not comment on personnel issues,” Loveland told Kansas Liberty. “But I will say that the students who spoke were very eloquent and their strong feelings on the issue were evident. I think that public opinion expressed at board meetings is listened to and listened to carefully.”
Greg Ward, co-founder of the Kansas branch of the 912 Project, a group that works to unify Americans and encourages political participation and debate, is urging teachers, students and any concerned citizens to attend USD 497’s next school board meeting, June 8.
“There has just been this incredible outpouring of anger mixed with praise for Tim Latham and disbelief of why the administration is trying to get rid of such a great teacher,” Ward told Kansas Liberty. Ward researched and investigated Latham’s dismissal after a discussion board on Latham’s situation was started on the 912 web site. Latham is also a 912 Project member.
Ward said it was important to fight against Latham’s dismissal so that the school district realizes the public will not permit discrimination and said he thought this type of discrimination has been present in public schools for many years.
“If we don’t think things are right and do nothing, we are to blame for the problem,” Ward said.
- Holly Smith
- USD 497 web site
- Lawrence High School web site
- Kansas 912 Project web site