More than 70 people turned out Monday night to show support for a middle school teacher facing a termination hearing. At 2:35 a.m., Tuesday, when the hearing finally ended, about 40 people were still waiting for their colleague and friend in the high school library and hallway.
In the end, the attendees' long night paid off — the board voted unanimously to reinstate Mark Kuntz, a health teacher at Bettendorf Middle School who has been out of the classroom for 10 weeks. Kuntz will be back in school Wednesday.
"The number speaks for itself,” said Toby Paone, UniServ Director, the teachers union representative. “This is why people pay their union dues.”
The district did not name Kuntz until the final vote. But before the board voted to close the meeting, Kuntz was seated at a table, with a name card that said “teacher,” next to all seven board directors, Superintendent Mike Raso, attorneys and a court reporter.
Kuntz, like many of his supporters, wore "red for ed'" in solidarity. Supporters wore red to two earlier meetings too, when Kuntz's potential termination was first discussed.
“I have been humbled and blessed to have all this support,” Kuntz said after the vote — and after the supporters who stayed behind all lined up to hug and congratulate him.
While several of the supporters referred to an interaction between Kuntz and a student — and a video of the incident — as being the impetus for the district’s recommendation for termination, neither the district nor Kuntz provided any details beyond Kuntz saying he “escorted a disruptive student from the classroom.” The district confirmed any documentation of the event would remain closed as a personnel issue.
The board voted to close the meeting, without any public input from Kuntz.
According to board policy, if the superintendent recommends the termination of a contract, the licensed employee may request a “private hearing” with the board.
Becky Knutson, Kuntz’s attorney, said the possibility of an open hearing has been much-debated, but the chapter of Iowa Code from which board policy was written specifies the hearing be private.
Teachers in attendance included Sue Owen, an English teacher at the middle school, and Connie Jeschke, who retired from the district in June.
They both spoke highly of Kuntz, saying he was one of the “finest” teachers they knew, and that they were “saddened” by the hearing.
“Teachers are here to support another teacher — that’s all I can really say right now,” said Mary Heeringa, president of the Bettendorf Education Association, after the crowd was ushered into the library to wait. “A lot of them are going to be here for a long time tonight.”
That proved to be the case, as the crowd waited for hours in the library across the hall from the room where the hearing was held. Pizzas were delivered, and people talked, played card games and worked on a puzzle while waiting for the outcome.
At 9:31 p.m. — more than 3 ½ hours after the meeting started — the first of the 15 witnesses for Kuntz was called in, to the applause of supporters in the library.
One of the teachers who was a witness for Kuntz said there were 15 witnesses for his side, including Kuntz.
Knutson said the meeting was confidential, and that she could not share any details about how many witnesses were called by the district or what happened inside the room.
Kuntz was a longtime math teacher for the district, but transferred to a middle school health position in June. He was such an institution in the math department, that School Board Director Paul Castro singled out his voluntary transfer from the personnel sheet. Castro said it was “troubling” to him why the change was taking place.
Bettendorf teachers and supporters showed up in droves to the two October board meetings when Kuntz's hearing was first discussed. On Oct. 7, no action was taken by the board to further the case, but about 50 people attended, and several spoke during the BEA report about the need for more training and support for teachers when it came to intervening with students.
The school board voted unanimously to receive and place on file a recommendation to terminate a then-unnamed district teacher on Oct. 21, and it was confirmed the teacher was put on paid administrative leave.
“If they did this three more times, they’d show up three more times,” said Rodger Wilming, a language arts teacher at the high school. He was later called into the board room as a witness.
Wilming is a former BEA president and has been in the district for 21 years. He said he remembered teacher termination hearings, but that they were all “more cut and dry” than Kuntz’s.
“I don’t recall a long, drawn-out (hearing) where witnesses were called on both sides,” he said. “We had some teachers who had to leave, but it was pretty apparent, their infractions.”
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