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School board declines to renew contract of principal who alleged leave was due to his sexual orientation

Jeff Peterson attended Raymond School as a child

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

Raymond School Principal Jeff Peterson attended Raymond Elementary as a child.

After he got his first-ever teaching job at the same school he grew up in, he said it was a life goal of his to serve in a higher role there. He met that goal in 2021 when he was hired as principal.

“It was a dream come true to be principal at Raymond School,” Peterson told the Raymond School Board on Wednesday night.

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Peterson’s sister also attended the school and taught there. His father and aunt both served on the school board.

“There’s been a Peterson at Raymond School for over 50 years,” he said.

At the Wednesday meeting, the school board voted to non-renew his contract as principal. This, after the embattled principal alleged in a complaint to the state that the board placed him on leave because he’s gay.

It’s the latest example in Wisconsin of school board members and administrators being at odds with LGBTQ+ educators or students.

The Raymond School District in Racine County is a one-school district that has just over 400 students and around 50 staff. In November, Superintendent Mike Garvey announced his resignation, citing concerns over his “health and well-being.” The board recently abandoned its social-emotional learning curriculum, according to Racine County Eye. The ACLU of Wisconsin also filed an open records request with the Raymond School District seeking information about Peterson and his suspension.

“Given the seriousness of these allegations, this request for records could illuminate the narratives driving school board decisions that impact the rights of LGBTQ+ people in Raymond schools,” said James Stein, ACLU of Wisconsin deputy advocacy director. “We hope this request will help provide that transparency.”

Recall effort underway

Following the decision Wednesday, local parents and residents launched a recall effort to remove board members Gwen Keller and Janell Wise.

Peterson’s complaint says when Board President Audrey Kostuch and Keller were elected, anti-gay rhetoric became commonplace. Those board members, and Superintendent Garvey, did not respond to a request for an interview.

“Politics has definitely seeped its way into the board,” Peterson said in an interview Thursday. “I never really made many of the connections before, before I started hearing what’s happening across the country with extreme groups trying to influence what happens in our schools.”

When Keller was elected to the Raymond School Board, the conservative group put out a press release that said 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.

During the Wednesday meeting, Keller said she liked Peterson as a person but that he shouldn’t be principal of the school.

“I hope we can all agree it’s best for the district to move forward,” Keller said.

In an earlier 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.”

Wednesday night, an attorney representing the Raymond School District said there’s evidence Peterson hasn’t performed well in his job.

In response, Peterson said he had evidence to prove he was doing his job and attempted to show that to the board in recent months.

“Definitely, in the past year and a half, (I) have felt like I don’t have a chance to communicate with them, I don’t have a chance to build a relationship with them,” Petterson said of the board.

Complaint alleges he was targeted because of his sexual orientation

In a complaint filed with the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division in September, Peterson, 53, alleged he has been targeted ever since the two school board candidates promoted by Convention of States Action were elected. The complaint said they began “public and coordinated” anti-gay attacks across the district.

The complaint also said he 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.”

Parent Mitchell Berman, who has a kindergartner in the school, said he and his wife moved to the area for the school. But now, they’re considering sending their child to another school next year because of issues with the board.

“We’ve had discussions about… depending on how the dust settles — whether or not we feel like our children are going to get a good education at this school,” he said.

“It seems that politics, which have no place in school, have unfortunately infiltrated the district and that’s what’s being used to make a lot of these decisions,” he added.