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Racine County principal files complaint alleging sexual orientation cost him his job

Raymond School principal's contract not renewed; he was escorted from building last week

Blue lockers line a hallway in a school building.
A student walks down a hallway with lockers Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

A Racine County principal placed on leave last week has filed a discrimination complaint with the state, alleging his contract is not being renewed because he is gay.

In the complaint, Raymond School Principal Jeff Peterson alleges he has been targeted for months since school board candidates promoted by the grassroots group Convention of States Action were elected and began “public and coordinated” anti-gay attacks across the district.

The case is the latest in Wisconsin to put school board members and administrators at odds with LGBTQ+ educators or students. Challenges to district bans against “controversial topics” have drawn attention across the country and state including in Waukesha, Arrowhead and Oak Creek school districts.

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Peterson was escorted from the school on Sept. 28 by Superintendent Mike Garvey and two sheriff’s deputies. Garvey then left for the day, telling staff his own family had received “significant death threats.”

The school was on soft lockdown Sept. 27-29.

Peterson’s removal came one day after the Raymond School Board held a special meeting, voting 4-1 in closed session to provide him preliminary notice that they are considering to not renew his contract.

Peterson’s attorney, Ben Hitchcock Cross, told reporters after the school board meeting that the educator’s sexual orientation is why he was losing his job.

“If Mr. Peterson wasn’t gay, then this discrimination from the board would not be happening. And we don’t think he would be non-renewed,” Hitchcock Cross said.

In a statement, the Raymond School Board said Peterson was placed on leave to “allow the district’s administration, through a third party, to investigate concerns about the principal’s conduct.”

No further information has been released about what type of investigation is being conducted. Garvey and school board members did not return requests for comment.

Raymond School is pre-K through eighth grade with about 400 students in Franksville.

According to the complaint

Peterson, 53, filed a complaint on Sept. 29 with the State Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division against the school board and school district.

Peterson was hired as principal on July 1, 2021. Before that, he had about 20 years of school administrative experience.

Peterson’s complaint says when Board President Audrey Kostuch and Board Member Gwen Keller were elected, anti-gay rhetoric became commonplace.

Both board members were promoted by the Convention of States Action. The 10-year-old grassroots movement supports Article V of the United States Constitution, which outlines mechanisms for making constitutional amendments. The group is in favor of a convention called by three-quarters of states to pass amendments that limit the power of the federal government and institute term limits on its officials.

When Keller was elected to the Raymond School Board, the group put out a press release. It highlighted that Keller ran for the seat because she found “highly disagreeable books in the school library.”

The release said Keller decided to run for the board when she learned that second graders watched an episode of the PBS show “Arthur” that showed his gay teacher getting married.

Keller did not return messages from Wisconsin Public Radio.

Peterson’s complaint also details that he was financially discriminated against. In August 2021, his partner’s health insurance coverage was canceled without notice.

When Peterson asked the school district about this, he was told “same-sex partners are not covered on family policies for any reason.”

Peterson was informed in March 2022 by Garvey that he needed to have an adult present when he was teaching fifth grade boys to make sure he wasn’t trying to “indoctrinate children.”

In April 2022, Peterson’s contract was supposed to include a $5,000 performance increase, $15,000 to cover the cost of the health insurance loss and a title change to assistant superintendent. But the board never followed through, according to his complaint.

By June 2022, Peterson was starting to be threatened his contract wouldn’t be renewed, the complaint states. At the time, he was told he could hire an attorney.

According to the complaint, Garvey told Peterson’s attorney he could “be a great principal somewhere, just not here.”

Peterson’s contract doesn’t expire until 2025.

Parent feedback

In the weeks leading up to Peterson’s dismissal, parents attended school board meetings to speak out and read letters in support of him.

Parent Mitchell Berman said Peterson’s sexual orientation has never been a problem for parents. Like Peterson’s complaint, he believes the challenges began with the new school board members.

“This is 100 percent why he was targeted,” Berman said. “These are the people who are banning the books, who are concerned about a PBS cartoon being shown.”

Berman filed an open meetings complaint on Sept. 1, alleging board members held their retreat at the board president’s house to go over district finances with Garvey.

Convention of States Action’s Wisconsin Director Art Binhack has unsuccessfully run for the Raymond School Board.

Before the meeting last week, Binhack sent a message urging community members to attend the meeting to stand up to liberal extremists.

“This began when the current principal was put on notice that the community was not happy with his performance from a parental survey that went out,” Binhack wrote. “Once that occurred, he began his campaign of finding those in the community that shared his views and using them to begin the bullying campaign of harassment of the board.”