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Following car wreck and insurance dispute, Soldotna teacher fights termination

Fischer was a physical education teacher at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna.
Riley Board
Matt Fischer was a physical education teacher at Skyview Middle School in Soldotna.

Matt Fischer has been a PE coach at Skyview Middle School for more than two decades, and he considers himself a reliable presence in his students’ lives.

“The kids know. I have never skipped a single rep in my life,” Fischer said. “No matter how hard the workout is, no matter how bad I feel. I will not skip it.”

That is, until he was terminated by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District in mid-December, on the grounds of “immorality” and “substantial noncompliance” with state or school laws. Now, Fischer is appealing the termination, and has a hearing scheduled at the end of the month.

The incident dates back to 2015, when Fischer was struck head-on by another vehicle while driving home from work. His 12-year-old son was also in the car. Following the accident, Fischer underwent several surgeries, including one for a broken femur.

The surgeries and damages were covered by the other driver’s insurance policy, as well as by a secondary insurance policy Fischer had. He said he notified the district about that settlement by mail and e-mail after he received it — about $300,000 from the other driver’s policy.

But according to court documents, the district said it never got that notice, and instead paid off Fischer’s medical bills through its own insurance policy. When the district found out about the settlements, it charged Fischer to recoup what it had paid, about $164,000.

Fischer said he couldn’t pay back the money then and the district sued. Ultimately, the courts determined Fischer owed that $164,000 to the district, plus interest.

“In the end, the court said I’m wrong,” he said. “We wrote the check.”

Then last summer, the district told Fischer they would accept a portion of the cost he owed, about $95,000, in exchange for his resignation from his teaching position.

At that time, Fischer said he would pay the full amount, and brought a check to a pre-termination hearing. But he says the district refused to take the check — and a month later, asked him to pack up his things on the grounds that he had stolen money from the district.

Fischer has suspicions about why he was terminated, in part because he worked as a negotiator for the teacher’s union at the time of the accident. He emailed the district to claim harassment after they requested his resignation, asking that the connection between his bargaining and termination be investigated.

“There is nothing in that civil suit that was tied to my job,” he said.

Fischer said he has not heard any response from the district.  

The district has gone through three superintendents since Fischer’s situation began, as well as three Human Resources directors and a near complete turnover on the Board of Education.

Nate Crabtree, the district’s human resources director, was unable to answer specific questions about the nature or timing of Fischer’s termination. He said, “The District takes all personnel matters seriously and in accordance with law. Because this situation involves ongoing litigation and a confidential personnel matter, the District is unable to provide any further comment.”

A packed house of students and parents turned out to a Board of Education meeting earlier this month to show their support for Fischer, and ask that his termination be reversed. One of those students was Kate Cox.

“The first day he was not at school was very sad. Many people were in tears and upset that he was gone, including me. It has been a big disruption for us to lose a teacher in the middle of the year,” she said. “I hope you can reconsider and allow him to come back to school because he is irreplaceable.”

Students spoke about how he inspired them to care about athletics and showed up early to supervise basketball or workouts. Several parents also spoke on Fischer’s behalf, many asking how the insurance dispute became connected to his job performance. Several commenters pointed to the district’s ongoing struggle to find teachers.

Fischer said being at the board meeting, hearing all of his students speak, almost brought him to tears.

“These aren’t just kids. These are kids I love. These are kids I would do anything for,” he said.

Fischer is appealing his termination, and he chose to have a hearing in front of the Board of Education, open to the public. He requested the meeting be scheduled at a time that parents and students could attend, but the district set the hearing for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 31.

At the hearing, Fischer said he will not be allowed to present any new evidence, nor speak, because it’s designed to just be a review of the causes for termination. But he said he’s looking forward to the opportunity for a public discussion about his situation.

“You gotta bring things into the light. You can’t keep it in the darkness. And that’s what’s happened with this whole thing,” he said.

If the board affirms his termination, the case will move to arbitration. Fischer said the arbitration process could last until the summer.

A typo in the original story has been corrected to reflect that Fischer was fired on the grounds of immorality, not immortality.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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