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No Light Shed on Southern Door Superintendent’s Absence

Also: District withholds online messages pertaining to coach’s February resignation

The Southern Door School District continues to withhold reasons why Superintendent Chris Peterson is on leave, or whether the matter pertains exclusively to Peterson.

“I am not able to comment further as this is a pending personnel matter,” said school board president Penny Price, in response to the Peninsula Pulse’s questions about the circumstances surrounding Peterson’s absence.

The public was alerted to potential issues on Thursday, March 16, when the school board posted that it would hold a special meeting in closed session “for the purposes of considering the employment and performance data as well as social or personal history or disciplinary data of the District Administrator which, if discussed in public, would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of the district administrator and to confer with legal counsel for the District who will render oral advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the Board with respect to litigation in which it is likely to become involved.”

Minutes of that meeting show that school board members went into closed session at 6 pm and emerged for a brief recess at 9:50 pm, “during which time, Penny Price [school board president], Kim Starr [school board member] and Tony Renning [the school district’s attorney with Renning, Lewis & Lacy] left closed session to speak with Chris Peterson, Superintendent.” 

At 10:08, Price, Starr and Renning returned to closed session and the session recommenced, according to the minutes.

The district hired Peterson effective July 1, 2021, after longtime Superintendent Patti Vickman retired. In November 2022, Peterson led the district through a successful referendum for up to $18 million to build a new sports training facility and other improvements and remodeling projects ($14.9 million) and to allow the district to exceed revenue limits for three years for operational expenses ($2.9 million). 

During the district’s Monday-evening meeting, district business manager Jason Melotte sat at the head table to help run the March 20 regular meeting in Peterson’s absence, during which the board again held a closed session. Price did not explain Peterson’s absence during that meeting.

The listing for that closed session was, according to the agenda, to consider “the employment, promotion, compensation or performance evaluation data of any public employee over which the governmental body has jurisdiction or exercises responsibility; considering financial, medical, social or personal histories or disciplinary data of specific persons … which, if discussed in public, would most likely have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data, or involved in such problems or investigations.” 

The additional reasons for the closed session included “review of personnel resolutions; resignations/changes of assignment/hiring/appointments; sports survey review; admin evaluations update; negotiations committee formation; and review of student communication.”

Southern Door Declines to Release Records

Peterson’s leave follows last month’s departure of Dave Neinas, who resigned Feb. 9 after 10 years as the district’s varsity baseball coach. His one-sentence resignation letter, emailed to Peterson and obtained by the Pulse, stated that he was resigning “due to unforeseen events.”

The Pulse had received reports alleging the resignation was tied to inappropriate online comments. The Pulse reached out to Neinas by phone, text and email, receiving no response, and then officially asked the district by email, Feb. 16, whether it had knowledge of and copies of those comments.

Peterson responded with a two-page letter dated March 1 that denied the Pulse access to the records and explained why. He said the messages the Pulse asked for “do exist,” but they were exempt from disclosure because they were provided to the district anonymously and the district had not been able to verify who may have submitted them or establish their authenticity. 

“Releasing records that have not been verified and/or authenticated may have a chilling impact on the District’s ability to operate,” Peterson wrote.

Even if the records could be verified or authenticated, they contain information that constitutes “student records” or “personally identifiable information” that may be linked with particular students through one or more identifiers or other information or circumstances, according to Peterson’s letter. 

“Under the ‘balancing test,’” he wrote, “the need to protect the interests of District students outweighs the public’s right to access the records.” 

Brian Spahn of the Milwaukee law firm of Godfrey & Kahn, an attorney with the Wisconsin Newspaper Association who reviewed Peterson’s letter of denial, said the “blanket denial” was typical, but usually not defensible.

“What they should be doing is producing records in a perhaps redacted format that satisfies their obligation to produce them,” Spahn said Tuesday.

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