Contentious TCAPS Meeting Leaves Unanswered Questions About Superintendent’s Fate
By Beth Milligan | Oct. 12, 2019
Accusations of bullying, threats to recall board members, and pleas for public transparency dominated a special meeting of the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board Friday, which left the fate of newly hired Superintendent Ann Cardon hanging in the balance.
More than 100 attendees packed the meeting room (pictured) and spilled over into the adjoining hallway for the 3pm meeting, which was called Thursday night and followed a contentious closed-door board session Monday. Though Friday’s meeting agenda indicated only that board members would go into closed session to discuss a “privileged attorney-client communication,” board member Erica Moon Mohr told The Ticker prior to the meeting it would likely center on Cardon’s fate with TCAPS. Cardon, who was the board’s only and unanimous choice for the role of superintendent earlier this summer, has been on the job just 70 days.
Cardon appeared to still have her job at the end of Friday's meeting, with board President Sue Kelly telling media Cardon remained TCAPS' superintendent. However, Kelly declined to comment on Cardon's future with the district. "We are abiding by the law," Kelly said, explaining her refusal to discuss the board's closed-door discussion. But that answer was unsatisfactory to members of the public, who queued up for a 90-minute public comment portion of the meeting prior to the closed session characterized by chaos, anger, and heated questioning of board members.
Moon Mohr kicked things off by alleging that four of her fellow board members – Kelly, Pam Forton, Jeff Leonhardt, and Jane Klegman – conducted a “bullying campaign” in recent weeks against Cardon and board members who supported Cardon. Moon Mohr told The Ticker the campaign dates back to the board’s September 23 meeting, when Cardon expressed support for a district funding formula recommended by the School Finance Research Collaborative (SFRC). Prior to Cardon’s hiring and August 1 start, the board passed a resolution in May under former Superintendent Paul Soma criticizing SFRC for promoting a formula that “increases the equity gap by disproportionately benefiting high-funded districts at the expense of low-funded districts.”
Cardon’s positive comments about SFRC enraged Kelly, according to Moon Mohr, who alleged that Kelly called each board member individually multiple times in the following days and “expressed her disgust” with the superintendent. Moon Mohr alleged that the conflict escalated up until Monday night’s closed session, at which Kelly presented a litany of personal and professional criticisms of Cardon, with other board members joining in.
“What took place this week had nothing to do with helping Ann succeed; it was clearly intended to tear her apart in a power play, bullying session,” Moon Mohr wrote in a letter to board members Thursday. “I am embarrassed for each one of you. You should be ashamed of what you have done to our district.”
As rumors began emerging about Cardon’s possible termination or resignation Friday, TCAPS board members – with the exception of Moon Mohr – remained silent on the unfolding situation. The lack of information leading into the meeting and its 3pm timing, which precluded many teachers and parents of students from attending, prompted harsh criticism during the public comment session.
Moon Mohr's opening statement leading into that session once again outlined the details of Monday’s closed-door board discussion. After being reprimanded by Kelly and TCAPS legal counsel Jeff Butler – who ordered Moon Mohr to “stand down,” saying she was violating the law by discussing Monday's meeting – audience members angrily shouted over the board to let Moon Mohr speak. Kelly temporarily adjourned the meeting to let the audience calm down, with staff announcing that law enforcement had been called to keep order.
When the meeting resumed, Moon Mohr finished her remarks and nearly three dozen people lined up to address the board. TCAPS staff including Central High School Librarian Larissa VanderZee and West High School government teacher Tak Ready expressed their admiration of Cardon and dismay at the board’s proceedings. “We serve students first,” VanderZee said, saying she had returned to TCAPS after a 12-year absence in part because of her excitement over Cardon’s hiring. “This is not in service of those students.” Ready, calling Cardon a “wonderful” superintendent, said faculty wanted to focus on teaching and that board “drama is not healthy for any of us." He said: “This district needs to heal, and this process is not helping that.”
Community leaders also blasted the lack of clear answers about Cardon’s situation. Grand Traverse County Commissioner Bryce Hundley said he could not think of anything “short of criminal behavior” that would warrant Cardon’s termination so early into her tenure, while Traverse City Commissioner Amy Shamroe said Kelly’s “round-robin calls” to board members could constitute a violation of the Open Meetings Act. TraverseCONNECT CEO Warren Call said a strong school district was “one of the most vital building blocks of a successful economy,” adding that Cardon’s unknown fate was “deeply concerning” and that he blamed poor “board governance” for the controversy. Other former TCAPS officials suggested that Kelly and other board members could face a recall election if Cardon departed. Moon Mohr also called for Kelly and Klegman to resign from the board.
After Friday's meeting, The Ticker reached out to Cardon, who had not returned an earlier request for comment. The superintendent said she was leaving to spend the weekend with friends and could not comment on the situation with the board. Kelly also declined to comment on whether there would be an action item on the board's agenda at an upcoming meeting related to Cardon's contract. "There are certain parameters we must work (with) within the law, and keeping the integrity of the organization and the interests of the students and the community number one is what the board is doing," she said. When Kelly was asked when the community would have answers about what was happening with Cardon and TCAPS, Kelly said: "As soon as possible. We're desperately working on it."