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Raymond teachers, families express concerns about school district leaders

The Journal Times - 10/16/2023

Oct. 15—RAYMOND — Raymond School teachers were disappointed when Principal Jeff Peterson was placed on administrative leave last month.

Miguel Salas said Peterson is a highly regarded administrator.

"Mr. Peterson sets a high bar in terms of professionalism and personal conduct with staff, so this whole experience has been troubling for staff," said Salas, teachers representative of the Union Grove Area Education Association-Raymond, the union representing Raymond School staff.

Peterson being placed on leave is the latest example of an action many Raymond instructors took issue with, but teachers have had concerns for months about school district leadership.

Educators are concerned that their input is not valued or taken seriously by Superintendent Michael Garvey and the Raymond School Board.

"Education by necessity is a team effort, because there's so many different specialists and employees involved," Salas said. "The staff, because of all these different specialists, need a leader that is unifying and willing to take input from a lot of different sources, and the teachers don't believe that's happening with the current superintendent."

The Wisconsin Education Association Council conducted a survey of Raymond teachers in spring 2023 regarding Garvey's work about a year into his job.

The 13-question survey was filled out by 23 of 34 Raymond School teachers at the time.

Notable findings included that 96% of respondents either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "My district administrator has a good rapport with teachers and has established a firm trust level between administration and staff."

According to the survey, 91% of respondents either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "The district administrator generally involves faculty in the decision-making process. He seeks our input and actually takes our views seriously when making final decisions."

Salas said the teachers union sent the results of the survey to Garvey but has not received a response.

Garvey and Raymond School Board President Audrey Kostuch did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Principal update

During a Sept. 27 special meeting, the Raymond School Board voted 4-1 in favor of a motion to consider non-renewal of Peterson's contract.

Peterson was placed on paid administrative leave Sept. 28, pending the results of a district investigation into his conduct.

Salas said the teachers union is not aware of any staff complaints regarding Peterson.

Ben Hitchcock Cross, Peterson's attorney, said the principal plans to cooperate with the school district investigation and believes he will be "vindicated."

Peterson "hasn't committed any misconduct, and we assume that this is all a tactic to make him leave," Hitchcock Cross said.

After being placed on leave, Peterson filed a complaint alleging that the school district is discriminating against him because he is gay.

In a Sept. 28 statement, the Raymond School Board said that "any notion that the school district or its board members would tolerate any discrimination, including that which is based on sex, sexual orientation, or any other protected classification, is ridiculous and extremely disappointing."

Community concerns

Concerns about Raymond School officials are not limited to staff.

Many parents and community members attended the Sept. 27 board meeting to support Peterson.

Some have issues with how the School Board and superintendent communicate and collaborate. They believe district leaders have a conservative political agenda and are unwilling to engage with different ideas about how the school should operate.

During the Aug. 23 annual community meeting, Raymond residents passed two motions.

One motion directed the Raymond School Board to pursue legal proceedings to end Garvey's contract as superintendent.

The second motion was that the school district "be prohibited from defending against illegal action or utilizing any district funds to obtain legal services or counsel for the defense of any discrimination claim brought forth by any district employee involving allegations of discrimination conducted by either Michael Garvey or by the Board of Education."

The board has not acted on either of those two motions, according to Peterson's complaint.

School's direction

For Megan Rios, her concerns resulted in her daughter no longer attending Raymond School and Rios resigning as Raymond School PTO president.

Rios was PTO president for about two years until she and three other PTO members stepped down in spring 2023.

"There's a lot of behaviors and things happening from that School Board and that superintendent that I don't agree with, and I couldn't take it anymore," Rios said.

Rios believes the School Board and superintendent are taking the school in a divisive, politically conservative direction, something she does not agree with.

"Are the schools safe? Are the kids being educated? That's what we should be focusing on," Rios said.

According to Rios, she had a conversation with Garvey last summer where the superintendent repeatedly discussed politics.

Rios said Garvey had a photo of himself and Scott Walker, the former Wisconsin Republican governor, on his desk. Garvey did not respond to a question asking him about that photo.

Peterson's discrimination complaint alleges that, during an April 2023 board meeting, Garvey talked about the "conservative values" that will be represented at Raymond School.

That was similar to comments Garvey made in August 2021 during a staff meeting when he spoke about conservative Christian values being "visible and reflected in curriculum and policy," according to the complaint.

After the April 2023 meeting, several community members spoke to Peterson "and stated that they felt Garvey was becoming too 'politically vocal and highly divisive' at public meetings," according to the complaint.

'We just couldn't take it'

Raymond School, 2659 76th St., is a K-8 building with about 400 students.

Rios grew up in Raymond and attended the school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

She became involved with the PTO to help her daughter's school and reinvigorate activities that she enjoyed as a student, such as a Valentine's Day event and a fall festival.

Rios said she wanted kids "to experience all the great things that Raymond embodied."

She eventually became PTO president, which was rewarding at first.

"It brought me a lot of joy to create these things, to see people enjoy what I enjoyed," Rios said. "I loved everything about it."

Starting in early 2022, though, Rios said being PTO president was a far more challenging and stressful role.

That was around the same time that Raymond School removed three books from its library.

Rios wanted to support Peterson, teachers and students. She said that became unmanageable because of animosity from some School Board members toward her and other PTO members, which resulted in decreased support for the PTO.

"I was on the verge of a mental breakdown," Rios said. "I just wanted to help these kids and these teachers."

As a result, she stepped down from the PTO, and Rios and her husband made the difficult decision to transfer their daughter to a different school at the start of this school year.

"We just couldn't take it: the attacks and watching this breed of hatred coming through that school at the top," Rios said. "It was heartbreaking. We were crying with teachers ... You feel like you're failing them, and you're leaving them in this place that's just so toxic. They tell you how they walk down the halls in fear. Some of them are questioning their job choices, and they're incredible teachers."

According to the WEAC survey, 74% of teacher respondents either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "The district administrator considers and respects divergent opinions from the staff."

'Lack of trust'

Since resigning as PTO president, Rios said she feels like a weight has been lifted. Her daughter, now in second grade, is enjoying her new school.

Salas said educators appreciate the support of people like Rios and community members who advocated for Peterson at last month's meeting.

Brianna Fendt was one of many parents who attended the Sept. 27School Board meeting to support Peterson.

Fendt said she is frustrated with the board's actions, statements and minimal explanation for placing the principal on leave.

Until very recently, Fendt said her three children had excellent experiences at Raymond School, but the situation has caused the family to seriously consider whether they should continue attending the school.

"It gives us a lack of trust in our School Board," Fendt said.

Rios said Garvey receiving a two-year superintendent contract from the School Board earlier this year solidified her plans to resign from the PTO and transfer her daughter.

"That was basically, I feel, the nail in the coffin for everything that I held dear for Raymond school," Rios said.

Raymond teachers were disappointed that the School Board seemingly did not take their concerns into account when it approved Garvey's two-year contract.

"We've seen no action by the board that would indicate they're taking staff concerns seriously," Salas said. "The School Board makes the decision to hire, and teachers respect that, but when you have parents and teachers raising concerns about leadership, there needs to be some corrections made, even if you give the two-year contract. There was no recognition that the relationship issues had to be addressed, so it was definitely disappointing that there was no recognition of a problem."

According to the WEAC survey, 74% of teacher respondents either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "The district administrator demonstrates leadership. He provides consistent directions, implements new initiatives in a thoughtful and effective manner and is capable of addressing unexpected problems."

Moving forward

To address the ongoing concerns, Raymond School teachers want regular, positive communication between them and Garvey. If collaboration happens, Salas said teachers are more likely to stay at the school and provide quality learning opportunities for students.

According to the WEAC survey, 74% of respondents either somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement, "The district administrator practices the conviction that administration is to support instruction; he looks to lessen the nonessential burdens sometimes placed on teachers."

Salas said at least five teachers left Raymond School at the end of last school year, which he believes was related to leadership concerns.

Educators also want more input on decision-making, such as changes to special education curriculum, according to Salas.

Teachers are concerned that the ongoing issues may affect enrollment if community members do not have a positive outlook about the school.

"Its strength is its family oriented, community-oriented value, and if you lose that because people are turned off, potentially that leads to people leaving," Salas said.

Rios' daughter left. Rios is concerned about the future of the school she attended for nine years, which she called the lifeblood of the Raymond community.

Staff and families share that concern.

"Whether it's parents, non-union folks or whether it's union staff, the teachers, all these constituencies seem to be saying the same thing: 'We need to work together and not have such divisiveness,'" Salas said.

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