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Waukesha School District fires first grade teacher after ‘Rainbowland’ controversy

Teacher publicly spoke out against the district's decision to pull the Miley Cyrus-Dolly Parton song from a spring concert

Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform "Jolene" at the 61st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles
Dolly Parton, left, and Miley Cyrus perform “Jolene” at the 61st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 10, 2019. Administrators at Heyer Elementary School in Waukesha, Wis., aren’t letting a first-grade class perform “Rainbowland,” a Cyrus and Parton duet from Cyrus’ 2017 album “Younger Now,” promoting LGBTQ acceptance, because they say the song could be seen as controversial. Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

A first grade teacher in Waukesha who publicly criticized the district over a decision to pull the song “Rainbowland” from a school concert has been fired.

In late March, first grade dual-language teacher Melissa Tempel blasted the district after it excluded the song by Miley Cyrus and Dolly Parton. The lyrics were widely believed to focus on acceptance, but district officials said they found the song “could be deemed controversial.”

Tempel raised her concerns on social media and received national attention. She told news outlets, including Wisconsin Public Radio, that the Muppets’ “Rainbow Connection” was initially banned but later accepted after pushback from parents and the Alliance for Education in Waukesha.

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She also told WPR the district had not offered any specific reasons for the ban, but “the only common thread between those two songs was the word rainbow.”

At a lengthy hearing on Wednesday, the Waukesha School Board heard from school officials and a representative for Tempel regarding her actions and whether they violated district policy. Heyer Elementary Principal Mark Schneider told the board he never said to “veto” or “ban” the song.

Schneider testified he became the target of a flood of voicemail messages, raising concerns about his safety and that of the school community. And he said he received “vulgar” messages, saying he would “get what’s coming to (him).”

He also said officials agreed the school would need a large police presence when students returned from spring break.

Schneider said that after speaking with the elementary school’s music teacher, Jared Ziegler, they went through the song list and agreed on the best options for the concert. He testified he and Ziegler discussed the theme of the concert — Earth and making a better world — and went through the song list, approving the song “Rainbow Connection.”

Superintendent James Sebert also testified he received a deluge of inquiries from parents, community members and people outside the district, including threatening messages.

“I thought the way in which she disagreed with this decision was in direct violation of multiple board policies,” Sebert said at the hearing.

Sebert said that while he does not take issue with Tempel’s disagreement, he found the manner in which she expressed that sentiment to be “inappropriate” and “disruptive.”

In early April, Tempel was placed on leave. The administration recommended she be terminated for violating policies. The district argued she should have spoken directly with officials and instead caused safety concerns.

Officials also took issue with her handling of the incident by taking to social media.

But Tempel said she wanted her students to know they could make a difference, and she was “more talking to the public.”

On Wednesday, she told the board that she posted on social media about “the fact that ‘Rainbowland’ wasn’t going to be allowed (because) it was something that the public would be really concerned about, and that they were interested in knowing about it.”

After a closed-session deliberation, the board unanimously voted for Tempel’s termination 9-0 on the grounds that she violated three different school board policies.

The district’s attorney argued Tempel did not follow the chain of command by bringing her concerns directly to her supervisor before going to the media, that she engaged students on social media and made statements that sowed disharmony among staff.

After news broke, Tempel told reporters she “probably” would not have done anything different, even knowing the outcome.

Sarah Harrison, a parent in the district and a member of the Alliance for Education in Waukesha, said she was disappointed by the decision. Harrison is also a former Democratic candidate for state Assembly.

“I don’t think it’s the right decision, but it doesn’t surprise me, just based on what we’ve seen from our school board for the last three years or so,” she said. “We have seen the removal of safe space signs, declaring that those were controversial in nature. We have seen our teachers come under increased scrutiny, which has caused many good educators to leave the district.”

The conservative district also made news in 2021 when it was briefly the only district in the nation to refuse federal funding for free school lunches for students. The district reversed its decision after a torrent of criticism.

Harrison said she sympathized with Tempel’s decision not to follow the district’s protocol.

“If I was in her shoes, I would find going through that protocol to be pointless because you already know it’s not going to work,” she said.