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Acclaimed Football Coach Shunned By School Board
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Kirk Peterson is a yes man.

For 16 years, the Riverbank native and San Francisco State graduate has accepted coaching positions like an eager bobblehead doll.

He said yes to Beyer, Delhi, and Turlock high schools en route to an extraordinary résumé of prep instruction. He agreed to a six-year position as offensive coordinator of Turlock’s Division I football program, then said yes to Riverbank coach Jim Oliver when asked to join the Bruin football staff this summer.

But then Riverbank said no to Peterson.

No votes by Riverbank Unified School District school board members Steve Walker and John Mitchell have effectively shunned Peterson from a position on Oliver’s coaching staff.

With Kirk’s father and RUSD school board member, Ron Peterson, abstaining from votes to approve his own son, Walker and Mitchell have seized an opportunity to prevent Kirk’s acceptance to the staff in a move that bewilders area coaches — a move that could leave RHS without either Kirk or Oliver this fall.

“If Kirk does not get approved to join my staff, I may end up leaving Riverbank High in disgust,” Oliver admitted. “You have a guy willing to come help the program that would be a huge asset to us, but it’s my understanding that he is not being approved because of a personal situation between his father and a couple of board members.”


Setting The Scene

The conflict in question played out during a Feb. 19 school board meeting, when the school board voted to reduce the health benefits and monthly stipends of board members. Walker and Mitchell voted against the action, but lost a 3-2 vote. Mitchell then promptly left the meeting, but Walker stayed to vote no against a motion to approve Kirk to the RHS football coaching staff. All other coaches were quickly approved but since Ron Peterson abstained, Kirk was not accepted.

An ensuing conversation would explain the anomaly.

“After the no vote, I asked Walker why he voted no, and told him that he didn’t have to answer,” Ron said. “He said ‘I will be glad to tell you. I voted no because of the way you voted on the benefit package.’

“I was flabbergasted. That was the last conversation we had.”

Ron wasn’t the only one in earshot.

“Steve Walker sits between myself and Ron Peterson, and he leaned over to Ron and said ‘you voted against my healthcare and I voted against your son’,” RUSD Board of Trustees President Egidio ‘Jeep’ Oliveira said. “Other people heard him say that and it was not just me.

“Ron’s response was ‘you should not be on the school board.’”

Walker and Mitchell would go on to vote no on approving Kirk Peterson in a May 7 board meeting, then were absent from the following one (the most recent) on May 21.


Seeing A Pattern?

Absences aren’t exactly an oddity for the pair. According to Ron Peterson and RHS staff, Walker and Mitchell have missed every graduation for RUSD students in two consecutive years at Adelante Continuation High School, Cardozo Middle School and RHS.

“For most of these kids, these graduations are a 12-year culmination of all their hard work, and they only ask for an hour of your time,” RHS teacher and head boys basketball coach Jeff Jennings said. “Whether it is drama plays, sporting events, academic block-Rs, or graduations, the board members should be as available as they can be, and we see quite a few board members (other than Walker and Mitchell) at those events.”

Jennings was one of several area coaches to take the recent no-vote against Kirk Peterson with much chagrin. He had no trouble voicing his displeasure in a June 6 interview with The News.

“I’ve been around for a long time, and I figure that if I am not going to stand up for something like this, then where do you draw the line?

“Basically, in a nutshell, as retaliation to how (Peterson) voted on the benefits package, (Walker and Mitchell) voted no to approve Kirk.

“We should hold our employees and board members accountable to do the right thing,” Jennings added. “We have a lot of outstanding people in our school system, and I’m not saying Mitchell and Walker are not good people, just saying they voted no for reasons contrary to what we are supposed to be all about. We want as many good people working for us as we can and Kirk has got a proven track record.”

That track record is impeccable. Kirk Peterson played college basketball for SFSU, holds a credential in Physical/Health Impairments from the University, an English credential from Chapman University and works for the Stanislaus County Office of Education. He led Turlock’s frosh-soph football team to an undefeated league championship and coached the varsity program to playoff appearances in two of the last three seasons.

“We are very lucky to get somebody like Mr. Peterson to help us coach,” Oliveira said. “He is overqualified.

“All I know is that kids are the ones that end up suffering when you play politics on the school board.”


Oliver In Question

If RHS were to lose Kirk and a charismatic Oliver to a school board vote, it would undoubtedly be at the expense of the Bruin football program.

“If it comes to fruition (that Oliver and Kirk leave RHS), I am going to call them and ask them if they want to coach at Oakdale High School,” six-time defending Valley Oak League champion coach Trent Merzon said. “Those are great guys, and if they can’t wear maroon then they would both look great in red.”

Merzon, who holds the OHS school record for career wins at 130, led Oakdale to the state bowl game last fall. He’s lost just four games outside of state or section title appearances since 2010, and one of them was to Kirk Peterson’s crafty bulldog offense.

He knows good coaches when he sees them.

“I like both (Peterson and Oliver) a bunch,” Merzon said. “They are Riverbank alumnus (Kirk Peterson a Cardozo graduate) who want to come back and give back to the community. I would take them in a heartbeat because they are good coaches and even better human beings.”

Merzon said it was hard to wrap his mind around why a coach was not being judged by his character, and caught by a 100 percent avoidable personal situation.

It’s a situation that may prevent Kirk from reaching out to Riverbank youth and connecting with his own kinfolk.

“I have a lot of family over there,” Kirk said. “Jim Oliver is a close friend, my cousin is the athletic director (Jason Herrera) and I have another cousin that coaches cross country at RHS.

“To not be approved is bad news for me because all I want is to help the kids in a town that I grew up in. I don’t know why anyone would have a problem with that.”

Herrera said he was extremely disappointed by the votes, and added that while Oliver was bringing in a lot of really good coaches, Kirk was definitely one of them.

“During my five years (as athletic director), every coach that has been brought before the school board to be approved, has been approved,” Herrera said. “I wish we had some answers.”

Neither Walker nor Mitchell has been available for comment, despite repeated attempts by The News to speak with the two. Mitchell, reached originally while driving, promised a return call later but the call came after press time for this week’s issue, while a person answering the phone at Walker’s residence said she did not know when he would be available.

Walker instead responded to inquiries via an email to The News.

“In short I have voted no on many occasions too numerous to mention in 200 words or less,” the email reads. “Yet, I’m only being questioned on my no vote to hire the son of a board member as a sports coach. Am I missing something?”


Conflicted Board

“I can’t justify or really comment on their vote,” RUSD Superintendent Dr. Daryl Camp added. “Their vote is public and as board members they stand by their vote.

“Obviously Mr. Peterson felt it best for him to abstain on the issue.”

Stanislaus County Office of Education Assistant Superintendent Don Gatti was at the Feb. 19 meeting when the benefits were cut. He said he was aware of the conflict between board members.

“I understand that’s politics, and the way boards can vote,” Gatti said. “It’s the way things can play out.”

The politics involved are little too much for coach Oliver to take.

“I just wish the board members could put their differences aside and make decisions to best benefit the students,” Oliver said. “Kirk is a volunteer for us during the summer, but we need him approved to join our staff by for when school starts on Aug. 12.”

If Oliver were to depart RHS, the two-year coach would take with him the prestige of some heroic wins and an atmospheric turn-around for the program. He led the team to a stunning come-from-behind overtime upset of Waterford in his first game, and immediately established a vital routine of off-season workouts. He was highly praised by the coach of the 11-1 Ripon Indians (Chris Johnson) and even credited for the overall improvement of RHS pride in athletics by other coaches on campus. Oliver was responsible for the inspiring program to provide his fatherless players with positive role models in the locker room.

“Losing Jimmy would the worst thing that could happen, a terrible loss for Riverbank,” Ron Peterson said. “I hate to see Jimmy say something about leaving. He has done some real good things.”

The topic of Kirk Peterson’s approval is likely to come before trustees in an upcoming vote. The board convenes on Thursday, June 13, but the meeting agenda was not available as of press time.

If Mitchell and Walker are present, their votes could decide the fate of the RHS football program and bring resolution to a mystifying conflict that has teachers, coaches and fellow administrators rallying to support Kirk Peterson — a yes man community members hope they have the opportunity to welcome home.