Southern Door Superintendent’s Resignation Remains a Mystery

An open-records request for documents pertaining to the leave and eventual resignation of former Southern Door superintendent Chris Peterson has yielded no specifics as to why his tenure ended so abruptly. The district officially severed its relationship with Peterson effective June 30 and brought interim superintendent Tony Klaubauf on board Aug. 7.

The district first put Peterson on leave March 16. Not receiving answers to repeated questions as to why, the Peninsula Pulse launched an open-records request June 5 seeking all documents from Sept. 1, 2022, through June 2, 2023, pertaining to Peterson and school board members. The district delivered those documents July 31.

Although nothing within those documents specifically answers what happened, they do reveal how quickly Peterson’s tenure unraveled. Peterson was hired in April 2021 to fill the vacancy left by Patti Vickman, who retired effective June 30, 2021. 

The board renewed Peterson’s contract for another three years in January 2023. Fewer than three months later, the board would ask for his resignation.

March Surprise

The public first learned there was trouble from the agenda that the district posted for a special school board meeting March 16 to go into closed session “for the purposes of considering the employment and performance evaluation data as well as social or personal history or disciplinary data of the District Administrator.”

The district’s legal counsel, Green Bay attorney Tony Renning of Renning, Lewis & Lacy, was present at the meeting to “render oral advice concerning strategy to be adopted by the Board with respect to litigation in which it is likely to become involved.” 

The minutes of that meeting reveal nothing other than a brief recess that occurred, during which school board president Penny Price, school board vice president Kim Starr, and Renning left the closed session to speak with Peterson at 9:50 pm. The three returned to the session at 10:08 pm.

There is nothing in writing about what transpired during that 18-minute conversation. The only hint came in one of the documents delivered to the Pulse: an April 26 letter that the school district sent Peterson that spoke of “directives” the district had “provided to you in conjunction with your leave. The directives were relayed to you on Thursday, March 16, 2023 (as part of the discussion we had with you at the conclusion of the School Board meeting), and reiterated on Friday, March 17, 2023 (by electronic-mail to you from Attorney Renning).”

That March 17 letter that Renning sent Peterson accomplished three things: It transmitted a copy of “the school board’s proposed Agreement of Resignation and Release”; under the heading “Paid Leave,” it directed Peterson not to act on behalf of the district or to be on the premises unless it had something to do with his children; and under the heading “Personal Property,” it gave him the opportunity to find a time during nonschool hours to secure any personal property “if you desire to do so during this period of leave.”

Beyond that, it was silent as to why the district was requesting his resignation or putting him on leave. 

Chris Peterson in 2021, his first year with the school district. He would lead the district through a successful referendum in November 2022, but by March 2023, the district would ask for his resignation. Peninsula Pulse file photo.

Why No Written Record?

The Pulse submitted follow-up questions to Price and business manager Jason Melotte after receiving the documents it had requested asking why there was no written record regarding why Peterson was put on leave or why the board had asked for his resignation. 

“There was no need to put anything in writing, inasmuch as Attorney [Tony] Renning, [school board] vice president Starr and I met with Peterson prior to the conclusion of the special board meeting on March 16, 2023,” Price said by email. “The reasons for the leave were discussed by the parties at that time. The parties determined that moving forward, we would continue to discuss Peterson’s continued employment.”

Price said by email that although it took some time to come to an agreement on the terms of the split, Peterson’s departure was a mutual decision. In general, she added, the board does not publicly comment on personnel matters of any nature.

“Obviously, there was something that precipitated the board calling a special meeting on March 16, 2023, and the parties then discussing Peterson’s continued employment,” she said by email. “In the end, it was in the best interests of the district and Peterson to part ways. “Additionally,” she continued, “inasmuch as this matter has been amicably resolved, there is no reason to create any negatives for either party by making public the specific reason or reasons the parties mutually agreed to part ways.”

The documents sent to the Pulse show that Melotte and Price drafted the only messages that would be conveyed to the public and to families between March 16 – when Peterson was put on leave – and June 30, which was his official final day of employment. 

Those messages essentially said the same thing and would be consistent throughout the investigation: “I am able to confirm that Chris Peterson is currently on leave. I am not able to comment further as this is a pending personnel matter. During Mr. Peterson’s absence, Business Manager Jason Melotte will assume responsibility for day-to-day operations.”

The Southern Door School District Board of Education shown front row, from left: Janel Veeser, Penny Price (president), and Marissa Norton. Back row, from left: Kim Starr (vice president), Josh Jeanquart and Sam Counard. Not shown: Macaine Bouche. Source: Southern Door School District.

Peterson’s Request

Price confirmed by email that Peterson never addressed the board in person and “was never part of any of the closed-session discussions the board had concerning [Peterson’s] continued employment. The circumstances at play and legal requirements associated with his continued employment precluded Chris [Peterson] from addressing the board without various legal formalities being implemented.”

In one of the records the Pulse received, Peterson did ask school board members in a March 21 email for the opportunity to address the board. He said he was “deeply saddened by the decision you made as a Board without providing me any information regarding my performance as your superintendent, or asking me questions directly about recent issues that were raised by the Board President and discussed in closed session. I have grave concerns that the information you heard is not at all accurate. I care deeply about Southern Door, and I believe in the good work that we are doing for our students; so much so that I choose to open-enroll my own children into this district.”

Peterson further wrote that if he could address the school board directly, he was “optimistic that we can resolve any issues and gain clarity regarding next steps by engaging in the kind of open and honest communication that we know is good for the health and well-being of the students and staff.”

Price sent an email to all board members the same day, according to the records, asking them not to respond to Peterson. 

“I have been in contact with our attorney multiple times this morning regarding a press release and notice to families,” she wrote. “Please hold off on responding to Chris [Peterson].”

Later that day, she sent another email to all school board members.

“Tony [Renning, the school district’s attorney] just called me, and he will be responding to the board regarding the email that Chris [Peterson] sent us today,” she said. “He anticipates sending an email to us tomorrow morning.”

Renning sent that email to all school board members, Price confirmed, but the record was not included within the documents the Pulse received. When the Pulse requested that missing record, Price expressed interest in releasing that document during a phone conversation with the Pulse. But ultimately, responding to the Pulse’s request for the document by email, Price said the district could not make the email available. 

“The electronic-mail message shared by Attorney Renning with the School Board is protected by attorney-client privilege and, therefore, is not subject to disclosure,” she said. 

Emails from Parents

Parents sent emails to school board members as early as March 21 asking that information be sent to parents (“… prior to another news media getting a hold of this information, and you have even more upset and frustrated parents/community members”). Another sent on April 26 asked school board members to consider what was best for the district, leading with: “The black hole of confidentiality may be a necessary evil given the circumstances, but it does not help the school district or Mr. Peterson. From a community public-relations perspective, it is viewed as a lack of transparency and not well received.”

Another parent cut to the chase more quickly: “To call the current situation a dumpster fire may be an understatement,” the email writer said, but the individual encouraged the district to work things out with Peterson and get him back on board. “It is not Peterson’s fault that instead of school board members being the gatekeepers of the district, they became too friendly. Please strongly consider bringing Superintendent Peterson back and meet as a group to air problems and make a plan to move forward.”

Resignation Signed

The unraveling of Peterson’s employment took place behind closed doors. Executive sessions after the first one on March 16 were also held on April 3, April 17, May 1, May 8 and May 19. The minutes of those executive-session meetings reveal nothing about the meetings, except that some type of investigation was continuing. 

Specifically, the May 19 closed-session meeting minutes indicated that the board had received an update from attorney Renning “on current District Administrator position.” Also during that meeting, Shana Lewis from Renning’s office “updated the Board on recent developments in the investigation. The Board reached consensus and directed Shana Lewis as to their response to the District Administrator situation.”

The June 1 closed session, held to discuss Peterson’s “continuing employment,” ended with the board’s acceptance of Peterson’s “irrevocable” resignation, effective June 30, according to the meeting minutes and previous reporting by the Pulse.

In the Agreement of Resignation and Release of Claims document signed by Peterson and the school district on June 1, neither party admitted wrongdoing in a nonadmission clause. 

The district paid Peterson a lump sum of $74,407.56 in July 2023, according to the signed agreement, which was equal to six months’ salary, though it would not be classified as earnings for WRS purposes. 

“Peterson acknowledges that this Consideration is above and beyond what he would otherwise be entitled to had he not executed this Agreement,” according to the agreement.

The district also agreed to waive any liquidated damages that may otherwise be payable to the district as a result of Peterson resigning, and Peterson agreed not to sue the district.

In addition, both parties agreed to “refrain from making disparaging comments about one another, including in the press and on social media,” and to refrain from making “any voluntary statements, written or verbal, or cause or encourage others to make such statements that defame or disparage the reputation, practices or conduct.”

The parties settled on the district paying only a portion of Peterson’s three-year contract, which had been renewed in January 2023 and was worth $407,502 ($156,834 per year), excluding benefits.

“It was closer to $600,000 as a total benefit package,” Price said by email. 

Peterson’s original contract, signed in January 2021, gave him a salary of $145,500 for each of three years, not including benefits, according to Melotte.

“Administrative contracts are renewed each year,” Melotte said by email. “That keeps extending the ending date by a year, and wages change each year.”

Final Words

Only two other documents among all those received were exchanged between the school district and Peterson. 

On April 26, the school district sent Peterson a letter and digital version of it, signed by Price, accusing Peterson of breaching the directive not to represent the school district while he was on leave, as directed in Renner’s March 17 email to Peterson. The breach, according to the district’s accusation, was that Peterson had attended the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators’ (WASDA) educational conference in Madison while on leave. 

The letter also accused Peterson of “making disparaging remarks about the District in public settings specifically concerning School Board members and agents of the District.

“As an employee of the District (albeit on leave),” the letter continued, “you owe a duty of loyalty to the District. This includes an obligation to refrain from publicly disparaging the District and its officers, employees and agents.

“The above conduct, if accurate, constitutes insubordination,” the letter said, while also directing Peterson “to immediately cease and desist” with both of the accused actions.

Peterson responded to that correspondence with his own to Price, dated April 28. He denied that he had attended the conference and gave a detailed accounting of his whereabouts, which included taking his two children to school during his supposed attendance at the conference, “which can be verified through school district surveillance cameras,” he said. 

“Prior to being placed on leave,” Peterson continued, “I was registered to attend the WASDA conference in Madison from April 26, 2023, through April 28, 2023. My registration and hotel arrangements were made by my administrative assistant, Sue Ann Hubbard. Following being placed on leave, as I could not act in any capacity for the district, I did not cancel the registration.”

Peterson also denied speaking disparagingly of the district.

“In fact, I have told a few people that I would welcome the opportunity to return to work if a resolution could be reached. My children still attend the Southern Door School District, and I speak and think very highly of the district,” he said.

Peterson also accused board members of speaking disparagingly about him.

“Specifically, that I am stealing from the district,” he said. “I emphatically deny that claim. Comments like this, made by School Board members, are damaging to my reputation. I have been an educator for 28 years and would never do anything to harm the students, staff and communities that I have served.”

There is no other correspondence between the district and Peterson, the signed resignation the final word.

The Price of Public Information

The district responded to the Pulse’s original, June 5 request for records on June 9, asking that the Pulse clarify what the district classified as a “broad” request for records, and one that could cost up to $2,532. When the Pulse confirmed it was looking for records specifically related to the reason or reasons(s) why Peterson was on leave and why he resigned, the district estimated that costs for that search would be between $315 and $946.

Ultimately, the 44 documents delivered on July 31 cost $223.84. Some of those “records” were mere transmissions of actual emails or letters, and much of the content that was conveyed consisted of agendas, meeting minutes, a few emails from concerned parents, and questions from the media – three times from the Peninsula Pulse, and once each from both WDOR and Door County Daily News

Wisconsin statutes allow authorities to impose a fee upon the requester for locating a record, not exceeding the actual, necessary and direct cost of location, if the cost is more than $50. The district estimated an average hourly rate of $31.54 to pull the records.

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