School chief resigns from rural Racine County district after months of controversy, division

This report is republished by agreement with the Racine County Eye, where it originally appeared. 

The superintendent of a rural Racine County school district that has been at the center of controversy and political divisions announced this week he was resigning at the end of this year.

Dr. Michael Garvey, superintendent and business manager of the Raymond School District, announced his resignation effective Dec. 31 during a Monday night board meeting. His announcement followed a year marked by challenges, hostility and several lawsuits alleging misconduct and discrimination.

Garvey recounted his commitment to the district from when he was hired a year ago, promising to leverage his expertise in enhancing employment and financial systems.

“I also pledged to use my experience to help staff build their capacity by implementing best instructional practices,” he said.

Garvey described his tenure as beginning amid controversy, dealing with an employee issue on his first day that he managed alongside the district’s legal counsel and board members. Despite these early challenges, Garvey and the board aligned on critical goals, focusing on intervention in special education and overall instructional improvement.

However, the path was fraught with resistance, he said. “Despite pushback from several veteran teachers, we, as administrators, looked to the board for direction and received just that.”

Garvey, who was first hired in an interim capacity, said his decision to apply for the permanent superintendent position, encouraged by community members, staff and board members, was a step towards continuing his efforts in the district. However, disputes among parents and board members over Principal Jeff Peterson’s employment escalated over the summer. Garvey described a hostile environment fueled by a group of staff members and community individuals.

Peterson was suspended and notified his contract might not be renewed due to allegations of misconduct by school district officials. This occurred after the school board canceled the school’s social-emotional learning curriculum after parents complained the district was “teaching a transgender class,” which was really a class on gender bias. Peterson, who is gay, has filed a discrimination complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development, charging that he was fired because of his sexual orientation in violation of state anti-discrimination laws. The school district has denied the allegation.

District Administrator Dr. Michael Garvey announces his resignation, effective Dec. 31, during the Raymond School board meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Photo by Mark Hertzberg for Racine County Eye | Used by permission)

Garvey said the intense hostility included death threats towards him and his family, unprecedented in his 25-year career as a superintendent.

“This barrage of legal claims against the district and nonstop hostility… has taken a toll on my health and well-being,” Garvey said, citing these as reasons for his resignation. He emphasized the need to focus on what is right for him and his family despite the support he received from most of the board members, staff and community.

The school board voted unanimously to accept Garvey’s resignation. One school board member, Gwen Keller, reluctantly accepted the resignation.

“Dr. Garvey has been… a good superintendent. The superintendent serves the board, and Dr. Garvey has done an excellent job doing this,” Keller said.

Garvey’s final remarks wished the district well and expressed hope for a less toxic future.

“I will continue to provide the leadership as I am allowed,” he concluded, stating his commitment to the district’s well-being in the remaining months of his tenure.

At the meeting, the district announced that Peter Kempen, who retired from the Seymour Community School District, would be the acting principal.

Lawsuit alleges school board acted illegally

With Garvey’s resignation, the status of a lawsuit filed against the Raymond School Board in an escalating legal showdown that involves Garvey, the board, and Peterson, the former principal, is now in question. The lawsuit was filed by voters in the school district seeking to fire Garvey. 

The lawsuit was filed Nov. 10 in Racine County Circuit Court and alleges that Garvey created a hostile work environment for teachers and that his misconduct made the school worse.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Raymond residents Shelly Kurhajec, Jennifer Hribar, Jennifer Hansen, Julie Mausing and Dawn Peterson, also charges that the school board broke the law by hiring lawyers to defend the discrimination claim that the school’s former principal, Jeff Peterson has filed against Garvey and the board itself.

In addition to Garvey’s termination, the petition calls for the termination of all the school district’s contracts for legal services. It seeks damages against school board members Audrey Kostuch, Janell Wise, Gwen Keller, Amanda Falaschi and Amy Helvick for the amount paid to lawyers. The suit alleges the lawyers were paid contrary to motions passed at the annual meeting of school district electors in August, including a motion passed to fire Garvey.

Kurhajec, a former school board member, said the board’s current members brought politics into the school, causing the current divide. But more than that, she said, school board members Wise and Keller aren’t doing their jobs.

William Sulton, an attorney for the Raymond voters who filed the lawsuit, explained the case.

“I filed an action in the Racine County Circuit Court to ask a judge to order the school district to follow the law and also to terminate the contract with superintendent Michael Garvey, as well as to terminate the contract of any attorneys that they’ve hired unlawfully in violation of the voters’ orders,” Sulton said. “In addition, I’ve also asked the judge to order each member of the Board of Education to reimburse the village for the cost that they’ve expended on these lawyers unlawfully.”

In light of the annual meeting majority vote to terminate Garvey’s contract, “The Board of Education should have fired Dr. Garvey after the annual meeting,” Sulton said. “The voters were clear. By refusing to do so, the Board has shown that they are unwilling to follow the law. Those Board members should resign immediately.”

Shana Lewis, attorney for Raymond School District, said the district had not been served with the lawsuit and would not make any further comment.

Voters group wanted Garvey fired, but board chose not to

The petitioners argue that a majority of the electors of Raymond School District, during their annual meeting on Aug. 23, 2023, concluded Garvey’s misconduct warranted termination. They directed the school to separate Garvey from the district, a resolution reflected in the annual meeting minutes.

“Several educators have expressed that they feel threatened and intimidated by Dr. Garvey. Due to Dr. Garvey’s misconduct, the quality of education at the Raymond School has decreased. The electors of the Raymond School have concluded that Dr. Garvey’s misconduct warrants termination and have directed the Raymond School to separate Dr. Garvey from the school district,” the lawsuit states.

Furthermore, the electors at that meeting directed the school not to use district funds to defend against discrimination claims involving Garvey or the Board of Education. Despite these directives, the petition claims the school retained lawyers and has failed to separate Garvey from his position.

“Instead, they’re ignoring that [the motions],” Kurhajec said. “And that shuts the conversation down. If they had started with that for those proceedings [the annual meeting resolutions] instead of ignoring the public and thinking that it was a joke at the time and not taking it seriously, I think things may have turned out differently and we might not have had to file the writ.”

Annual community meetings are part of Wisconsin state statutes for towns. They give electors and community residents a direct say in the actions they want governing bodies, such as a town board or school board, to take on their behalf. The plaintiffs’ lawsuit argues that because the school board didn’t follow the direction of the electors, town residents have the right to withdraw the board’s authority or to address specific board members during the next election.

What’s next with the court

The suit represents a critical juncture for the Raymond School District. It highlights the community’s growing concern over administrative decisions and the use of public funds in legal matters.

As the case progresses through the legal system, it raises important questions about governance, accountability and the role of community electors in school district decisions. The outcome of the legal challenge could have significant implications for the Raymond School District and its leadership.

Reports republished from Racine County Eye are not available for republishing elsewhere.

originally published at https%3A%2F%2Fwisconsinexaminer.com%2F2023%2F11%2F22%2Fschool-chief-resigns-from-rural-racine-county-district-after-months-of-controversy-division%2F by Denise Lockwood

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