Amid Recall Approval, TCAPS Board Talks Montessori Construction, FOIA Appeals
By Beth Milligan | Nov. 27, 2019
The Grand Traverse County Election Commission approved petition language Tuesday to recall Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) Board President Sue Kelly, Treasurer Matt Anderson, and Secretary Pam Forton. The board members have 10 days to appeal the ruling, which Kelly and Anderson both tell The Ticker they plan to do.
The recall effort is just one of several issues facing board members this week, who also discussed an update on the planned construction of a new Montessori school and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) appeals from The Ticker and other media outlets seeking additional details regarding the departure of former Superintendent Ann Cardon.
Three TCAPS board members will have to go to court to stop a petition from being circulated that could oust them from their seats.
The Election Commission voted 3-0 Tuesday to approve petition language submitted by community group TCAPS Transparency to remove Kelly, Anderson, and Forton from office. The approved language reads as follows: “(Name of elected official) voted for Superintendent Ann Cardon to start August 1, 2019, but within 78 days of service, (name of elected official) voted to terminate Ann Cardon’s employment within Traverse City Area Public Schools on October 17, 2019 in a mutual separation agreement, costing the district and taxpayers $180,000 in severance pay.”
In a written ruling, the Election Commission noted it does not determine whether the allegation in the petition language is true or false. “That determination is within the province of the voters,” the board wrote. “Any allegation of fact may be true or false. The test employed by the Commission is to determine whether the allegations state a fact and it is clear, so that the responding elected official may defend.”
Kelly, Anderson, and Forton have 10 days to appeal the decision to Thirteenth Circuit Court, otherwise TCAPS Transparency can begin collecting the 11,633 valid signatures needed per official to force a recall election. Both Kelly and Anderson tell The Ticker they will appeal the ruling (Forton did not return a request for comment). “It’s not factual,” Kelly says of the petition language. “We did not vote to terminate Ann Cardon. We voted to accept her resignation.” Kelly adds she finds the recall effort “disappointing,” but says it is “certainly an American right” for residents to pursue such an action.
Anderson echoes Kelly’s remarks, saying he believes the Election Commission should have rejected the petition language. “There was never any vote to terminate, and I plan on using all the options under the law at my disposal to fight it,” he says. Anderson, noting he was absent from the TCAPS board closed session in which complaints against Cardon were first raised – a contentious meeting that led to her departure – says he’s not sure why he’s being targeted for a recall. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he says. “I’ve always conducted myself within the bounds of the law, and my ethical responsibilities as a volunteer member of the school board. It’s part of the democratic process…but I think the recall effort for my seat is unfounded and based on false information.”
According to state law, if TCAPS board members appeal the ruling, petition circulators must wait to begin collecting signatures until either a determination is made by Circuit Court or until 40 days after the appeal is filed, whichever is sooner. If Circuit Court rejects the petition language, the recall petition is dead and TCAPS Transparency would need to start the process over. If Circuit Court upholds the Election Commission’s decision, the group can begin collecting signatures. Signatures are valid for 60 days; once they are turned in and certified, a recall election can occur as soon as 95 days later – in either May or November, whichever comes first.
State law does not allow board members to be recalled if they are in the last year of their term – a stipulation that Patricia Henkel of TCAPS Transparency says prompted the group to drop its recall efforts for board members Jeff Leonhardt and Jane Klegman. “The good news is they will be up for reelection in November 2020, so you can vote them out then,” she wrote to TCAPS Transparency members Tuesday.
Plans to build a new Montessori school will likely result in TCAPS either tearing down Glenn Loomis and building a new school on top of the old school site, or relocating the campus to district-owned property on Franke Road.
TCAPS Associate Superintendent of Finance and Operations Christine Thomas-Hill told board members Monday that a previously preferred third option – constructing the new school near the intersection of Fourteenth and Pine streets – no longer appeared feasible after the City of Traverse City rejected a request to vacate the adjacent Griffin Street to accommodate construction. “They did come back with a compromise to vacate a portion of the road,” Thomas-Hill said. “However, it would still not secure our playground so that students could get from the building to the playground without crossing some kind of sidewalk or street…which means we couldn’t really secure that area.”
Thomas-Hill said that in order to stay on track for a July 2022 occupancy of the new school, the district would commission renderings for both remaining options – building on the existing Glenn Loomis footprint or on Franke Road – and make a decision on a final location with the board by early 2020. The rest of 2020 would be spent finalizing engineering and construction plans for the 70,000 square-foot building – intended to accommodate up to 550 students – in order to go out for bid and start construction in spring 2021. Anderson requested that a public input form be added to TCAPS’ website to allow the community to weigh in on the two options.
“Before, we hadn’t really considered the existing site as much – tearing that down and putting a new school there,” Anderson said. “But that’s an option now, and there might be some additional input that people want to provide.”
Finally, TCAPS board members Monday rejected appeals from The Ticker and Traverse City Record-Eagle to release a six-page document compiled by Kelly that outlined complaints against Cardon and was discussed in closed session, leading to Cardon’s departure.
TCAPS attorney Nancy Mullet of Clark Hill PLC said board members had included Kelly’s complaint within the minutes of the closed session, prohibiting its disclosure. “The law provides the minimum of what the minutes must include,” she said. “There is no maximum. So as a group, you will all decide or it is decided based on the discussion what is included and what is not…in this case, that information was included as part of the minutes.” The minutes of a closed session cannot be disclosed absent a court order, Mullet argued. “I cannot advise anybody on the board to break the law and disclose that.”
Board member Erica Moon Mohr was the sole ‘no’ vote against rejecting the FOIA appeals, saying she didn’t understand why Kelly’s complaint was included in the meeting minutes and not in Cardon’s personnel file, which the press also sought. “Considering the community and the lack of transparency that there has been, I just don’t understand why we’re denying this appeal,” she said. The remaining board members voted to approve the denials 5-1, however, with Klegman absent.