Traverse City News and Events

At The Center Of The TCAPS Storm, Chair Sue Kelly Admits Hiring “Wrong Superintendent,” But Focused on Process, Future

By Luke Haase | Nov. 14, 2019

The last four weeks have brought unprecedented controversy to the Traverse City Area Public Schools board following the sudden departure of recently hired Superintendent Ann Cardon. Public meetings packed with upset community members, closed session board meetings leaving unanswered questions, and now a recall attempt. At the center of the storm is Sue Kelly, board chair. Kelly has been accused by fellow board member Erica Moon Mohr of bullying, and public debate continues. We sat down with Kelly to hear directly from the chair about what went wrong, what questions remain, and what happens next.

Ticker: This has been by any account a firestorm over the past month or so. You’re the chair of the board, and some harsh criticism has been levied at you, and now a recall effort. How are you doing?
Kelly: You know, I’ve sold real estate for over 35 years and during that time I’ve been on the professional standards board for nearly 20 years, the ethics committee, the grievance committee. I’ve never had anything filed against me…I’m confident in my skillset and what we’ve done here as a board. It just surprises me, the intensity and the emotion, and a lot of it is – it appears to me -- people going outside the process. You know, this is a large organization, and there are processes to accomplish goals and objectives. And when we go outside of those processes, things get haywire. In private industry, when you hire somebody, in 60-90 days you typically do a review and talk about issues. And in this case that’s what we did. And when we came out of that closed session, obviously a board member went outside of the whole process and created a whole firestorm based on what may or may not have been fact. And it just has continued to accelerate.

Ticker: You speak to how long you’ve been selling real estate and never had anything filed against you. So all the more reason this must be a big challenge for you...
Kelly: But when it’s based on things that aren’t factual, you can feel confident as an individual and as a group. We have ethics and standards of conduct. And when you basically decide to take that path, you can be strong and be open. You have to keep the highest level of interest regarding the district to protect the kids, to protect the staff. It’s obviously well known that Cardon asked for confidentiality, she asked for a closed session, and as a board we gave that to her, and then confidential information was disclosed at the board table on October 11, which really compromised the district’s position.

Ticker: I’m guessing you still aren’t willing or able to get into specifically what happened with Ann yet. But can you speak to what you expect from a superintendent?
Kelly: We have the whole criteria, and it’s on our website even. A superintendent has to have leadership skills to run a district of 10,000. Has to be strong and determine a course and stay with it. I mean, look at the short time Pavelka has been here and the involvement he’s had. We as a board, you know, it’s pretty obvious we hired the wrong person.

Ticker: But you supported her hire and were a big proponent of her. The board voted unanimously.
Kelly: Absolutely.

Ticker: And then…something happened that changed that dramatically?
Kelly: In this particular case, relationships take time to develop. And as they develop there are ups and downs and you have to work together. And there were some issues we wanted to discuss, and Ann requested closed session, and we honored that, and then when information from that session got released to the public, that compromised the relationship. And then there was a firestorm basically, and Ann felt she couldn’t do her job anymore, so she resigned. You know, I would have thought we could have worked through issues. No one is more saddened on the stuff that’s happened, but we have to deal with what we have and figure out how to move forward, so the board identified an interim while we reset. We’re going to have to make the best selection that we can going forward.

Ticker: You said you had hoped you could work through the issues. So is it at that point or at what point when it changed and you felt you made the wrong hire?
Kelly: When she turned in her resignation.

Ticker: So you were a big supporter up until that moment?
Kelly: Certainly, oh yeah.

Ticker: So you hoped and expected she’d stay. So why was she the wrong hire?
Kelly: Well, obviously she couldn’t discuss issues, and when we started to discuss where we go from here a firestorm hit, and when we had 35 people speaking at public comment – many of whom didn’t even know why they were speaking – it became apparent she just didn’t want to work in that environment. We have a board that is very well functioning. A lot of it is understanding systems and being committed to it. We’re installing the blueprint system-wide. That’s all about systems. We act, then we adjust based on data, then take more steps…TCAPS board governance is based on a communications committee, HR, curriculum, finance and operations. We have office hours once a month. And all of those things have to work together so board members know what’s going on. And when individuals think, ‘Oh, that doesn’t apply to me…’

Ticker: Meaning?
Kelly: A closed session. ‘Oh, I don’t have to keep that confidential, regardless of what people say.’ Or if they want to bring something to the board table, they’re allowed to amend an agenda. But when the board doesn’t know what it means, you’re supposed to start discussions in HR or communications or curriculum [committees], so everyone knows the subject being discussed and have time to understand it all and have input. So when it comes to the business of the board, everyone is aware of what’s being discussed, and some agree to it and some don’t.

I’ve certainly been on the ‘no’ side in the past, and when I leave a board meeting in the minority….I don’t keep going back to it and bringing it up and say I disagree. We have to have a unity of purpose with the majority after they thoroughly vet something. We’re going to continue to act in that governance system…

Ticker: So you felt like it was just a normal course of action. You were having conversations back and forth between the board and the superintendent and you were going to work through it.
Kelly: You can say there were issues we wanted to discuss, and the only way a board can discuss staff issues is in closed session if they request it.

Ticker: It seems like the biggest issue is transparency, and I don’t understand it. I know a lot of this has been based on legal opinion, but…
Kelly: Transparency regarding what? Be specific.

Ticker: For instance, we and other media filed FOIA [Freedom Of Information Act] requests, and for the first time I can recall, it was basically, ‘We’re going to take the maximum amount of time and give you the littlest information as possible.’ Extensions, redactions. And I know claims have been made about attorney-client privilege, but what we’re told is that by law, you’re able to overrule that and release information if you choose to. It seems like you’re compounding the problems because all of this sooner or later is going to come out. Another example was after she submitted her resignation and the meeting ended and the media asked you about the terms, and you said, “You can FOIA it.” But why bother? The public is going to find out eventually, so why not just attempt to be transparent?
Kelly: In that particular case, I think I also said that contract wasn’t valid for another seven days. But we put it on the website, we make it available.

Ticker: What?
Kelly: Whatever information that we have as a board. I mean, this board has absolute transparency on everything.

Ticker: But there’s no way that’s true.
Kelly: Really?

Ticker: Another example was the list of names of the candidates for the open board seat. A very simple request. We had asked, and we were told, ‘We’re not going to give you the names.’ But why? The names are going to come out. Seems to be just making this worse.
Kelly: I can’t answer that for you. It’s open. In fact there are school districts around the state that can’t believe the amount of stuff we put on the website. And you’re absolutely correct, that information is available to the public. Right now I don’t know the exact number, but I believe we have 48 individual FOIA requests, and our communication department has been working nonstop to satisfy those…but they have to go through everything. I’m not privy to everything they’re doing, but it’s a huge burden.

Ticker: It’s just a larger point about intent. If there’s an intent from the top to release, then information is released. And if there’s an intent to hide or delay or obfuscate, that’s obvious too. And of course the [communication department] is buried. But there’s some information they could release today.
Kelly: Except that they have to read every single thing. And I don’t even know all the confidential information. That’s their job, and they’re taking the lead from attorneys.

Ticker: So in terms of legal advice, are you personally and professionally comfortable with the legal advice you’re getting from Clark Hill?
Kelly: I do think it’s sound. We interviewed three or four firms last year. And if I didn’t, we wouldn’t be taking it [the advice], right?

Ticker: It does sound like, based on case law, that you could overrule and release some details about what happened if you wanted to.
Kelly: Ann has requested confidentiality and we are bound by that. Anytime a staff person or a student requests confidentiality, that is one thing I will absolutely protect on their behalf. Why would I not?

Ticker: Because it sounds like there are more moving parts than just the single conversation with her. Like why was there a closed session multiple times, the agreement with Jim [Pavelka]…and the issue of releasing the open board seat candidate names?
Kelly: I think [with the candidate names] they wanted to check and let the people know before they put their names and addresses out…

Ticker: But by applying for a public position, it’s public. That’s how it’s always worked, here and every other public body. And now all of the sudden because of the controversy, it changes. I mean, you talked about systems…this system just seems to have come to a screeching halt. So…
Kelly: I guess I don’t know what you know. I know they eventually provided it. They wanted to make sure that all the applicants knew that it was going to be out there. You know, this environment right now. People put my name and phone number out on social media and told people to avoid me or do this or that, so I guess the staff wanted to make people aware of what was going on and make sure the candidates still wanted to go forward with the application.

Have we made mistakes in the past? We certainly have. And will we continue to adjust and make sure that things are right from here forward? Absolutely.

Ticker: What mistakes?
Kelly: Well, apparently we hired the wrong superintendent. And we have to address that and look forward on recruiting the right superintendent.

Ticker: And what about communication and transparency? Were mistakes made there?
Kelly: I think the communication has been available. We’ve listened, we’ve called, we’ve talked. We’ve communicated with you every chance we have. We attempt to be careful and cautious and protect our people, but be accountable to the community.

Ticker: A few rapid-fire questions maybe you can answer quickly. Erica [Moon Mohr] suggested that you bullied her in meetings. Has that ever happened?
Kelly: No.

Ticker: How would you describe Erica as a board member?
Kelly: She’s learning. When I was new, I made mistakes. I remember one time when I thought the board should be doing something, and I made a motion and someone seconded it. A sitting board member was very upset that I didn’t follow the process, so they knew what we were doing. That it didn’t come through committees and the HR process. That board member went on [TV] and talked about it. She agreed with the objective, but she disagreed with the process I took. And that was a huge learning curve for me. And I see Erica doing the same thing. It takes time to learn how the process works. And then when you have friends and supporters, they get upset when they see things marginalized. But if a young board member doesn’t believe that the correct process is their right process, it causes problems with the operation and can compromise the district.

Ticker: If you had your choice, who would you ask to resign from the board, if anyone?
Kelly: I haven’t asked anyone to resign and I wouldn’t.

Ticker: Did you have any agreement or discussion about [former Superintendent] Paul Soma’s landing spot once he left TCAPS, in Lansing or the private sector?
Kelly: No.

Ticker: Did you talk to Jim Pavelka before the afternoon he was hired?
Kelly: No.

Ticker: What letter grade would you give the board over the past year?
Kelly: B+.

Ticker: Is there any truth to the idea that you are or were planning a run for political office, like Larry Inman’s seat?
Kelly: [Laughs] That’s one of my favorite questions. Thank you for bringing that up. It’s just so incorrect. Can I tell you how untrue it really is? I live in Leelanau County. I don’t even live in Larry Inman’s district. Jack O’Malley is our representative. So it’s not even possible.

Ticker: Two adjectives describing what you’d be looking for in a new superintendent.
Kelly: Professional and committed.

Ticker: What would it take for you to resign?
Kelly: I have no intention of resigning. 15,000 people voted for me a year ago. I made a commitment and I intend to follow through on that.

Ticker: Would you run again?
Kelly: That depends on a lot of things. That’s three years from now.

Ticker: Of all that has transpired over the past four weeks, how much of that will be public a year from now?
Kelly: What will not be public are things from closed session. Beyond that I don’t know why anything wouldn’t be transparent.

Ticker: So for instance, the specific terms of the separation agreement or what issues you had with Ann. No one will ever know.
Kelly: Minutes of a closed session are confidential.

Ticker: Right. But you had said you had issues with her well before any closed session. So you will never say what issues you had with her?
Kelly: No. I believe part of the separation agreement states that neither one of us…

Ticker: And if you weren’t on this board and were just a parent, doesn’t that seem to leave some open questions? A unanimous selection is suddenly gone in X number of days, and nobody really knows why. This is a public body...
Kelly: Part of the process, and that’s what we have to abide by, is our code of ethics. Abide by the law. And part of the Open Meetings Act is a confidential closed session remains confidential. It’s never ok to release that information.

Ticker: And that’s based on your opinion of your own attorney, right? I understand there are media outlets planning to challenge that in court.
Kelly: That is correct.

Ticker: I’m curious about your business. You’re at the same real estate brokerage as Erica. I take it you aren’t exactly friends.
Kelly: Well, we were friends, and I’ve been very supportive of her. I continue to be. I called her on Monday to make sure she got an email this weekend. I will continue to interact with her.

Ticker: But this has become so public. Does it affect your business positively or negatively?
Kelly: Oh, I saw some people on Facebook saying, ‘Avoid Sue and withdraw your listings, and work with somebody else.’ There are a lot people who won’t work with me regardless of the school board and have other relationships, and a lot over 37 years who will only work with me. My business is based on past clients and a very important part of my life and I expect it to continue. I was in a business meeting this morning with Lynne Moon.

Ticker: Anything else to add?
Kelly: The main thing I want to share is we will continue to do things with the very best professionalism and ethics that we always have. Governance of TCAPS is strong and the board is doing an excellent job.

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