Traverse City News and Events

Inside The Ongoing Dispute Over Interlochen Community School

By Craig Manning | Dec. 7, 2021

A daycare facility; a spot for after-school activities; a hub of adult learning: just a few of the potential uses that Interlochen Center for the Arts (ICA) is considering for the Interlochen Community School building, which was returned to the institution this fall after a 13th Circuit Court judge ruled that Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) had failed to meet the terms of its long-running lease of the property. For now, the school continues to sit mostly dormant, thanks to a decision from the TCAPS Board of Education to appeal the ruling. But even TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner says the district doesn’t want full control of the property back – begging the question of why a single school building has sparked a court dispute between two of northern Michigan’s largest educational organizations.

According to ICA, the school “sits on land [ICA] granted to TCAPS’s predecessor, Green Lake School District No. 5, in 1950, with the stipulation that possession of the property was contingent upon its use for ‘public school purposes.’” TCAPS met that requirement for 65 years by operating Interlochen Community School as one of its elementary schools.

As enrollment around northern Michigan has dipped, though, TCAPS closed many of its elementary schools, including Interlochen Community School in 2016. By that year, the school’s enrollment had fallen by about 50 percent from its mid-2000s numbers.

Knowing it needed to use the building or lose it, TCAPS established the Northern Michigan Partnership (NMP) in 2017, which brought local homeschooled kids together one day per week to take courses in music, art, foreign languages, and robotics. In theory, the program was a way for homeschool parents to socialize their kids and expand learning opportunities – and a way for TCAPS to collect state funding for homeschooled students.

But the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) took issue with the pupil accounting method TCAPS used for the program. TCAPS classified each NMP student as a 0.75 full-time equivalent (FTE), as opposed to the 0.15 FTE rate MDE determined the district should have been using. As a result, TCAPS overbilled MDE by $2 million over two school years – money it had to pay back.

The funding fiasco led TCAPS to terminate NMP permanently following the 2018-19 school year. While TCAPS has used the building intermittently since – for SAT testing, extracurricular activities, and meetings – it has largely sat unused for two-and-a-half years. The district announced plans earlier this year to use the school for early childhood education – and even potentially as a mask-optional learning site – but those plans never came to fruition. Superintendent VanWagoner tells The Ticker TCAPS “just couldn’t get the enrollment” to justify either option.

Last October, ICA initiated legal proceedings to activate a “reverter clause” in the TCAPS lease, which stated the school property should be returned to ICA if TCAPS didn’t use it for public school purposes. Judge Kevin Elsenheimer of the 13th Circuit Court ruled in favor of ICA, finding that the NMP was “a non-public home school association."

According to ICA President Trey Devey, the institution didn’t hear of TCAPS’ new plans for the property until they were publicly announced in July. When Elsenheimer made his ruling in August, ICA offered to lease the property back to TCAPS in a new agreement that would have cost TCAPS just $1 a month (plus utilities) and would have allowed the district to move forward with plans for the 2021-22 school year. TCAPS declined the offer, but the district’s board still voted two weeks later to appeal Elsenheimer’s ruling.

That appeal is still “ongoing,” per Simone Silverbush, ICA’s director of media relations and communications. ICA is waiting for a final ruling before deciding how best to use the building. “We think it prudent to await resolution of the case before making strategic investments in the property or securing partnerships,” Silverbush explains.

When asked why TCAPS declined the new lease only to appeal the court ruling that nullified the old one, VanWagoner says the district doesn’t want to bear the full burden of using the building, but still wants to help decide what those future uses might be – and the option to use the facility.

“We’d like to be able to still have access to the gym for different athletic groups within our school district, and we've had different groups that have used other parts of the building at times,” VanWagoner explains. “But for us, as the only entity to use the space, we really don't have any programming in mind that would fully utilize it. So, I think the board’s thought from the beginning was to ask, ‘Is a partnership possible amongst multiple entities to maximize the use [of this building] for the community?’ And I don’t think that goal has changed, as far as our hope for the appeal process. We want to be able to sit down [with ICA and other parties] and come up with a solution that benefits all.”

VanWagoner says he’s had just one formal sit-down with Devey where the two discussed the issue – in August 2020, shortly after he became superintendent. He says there has been little communication between the two entities since then.

“I made that request [to have another conversation with ICA leadership] and was told that we’d have to work through lawyers from that standpoint,” VanWagoner says.

Silverbush, meanwhile, says that August 2020 meeting was just one in a long series of sit-downs between ICA and TCAPS – albeit, the one that solidified ICA’s decision to try getting the Interlochen Community School property back.

“Since TCAPS shuttered the Interlochen Community School in the spring of 2016...Interlochen officials met with representatives of TCAPS several times, most recently with Superintendent VanWagoner in August of 2020,” Silverbush says. “At that meeting, VanWagoner confirmed there were yet again no plans for the building’s use during the forthcoming academic year. In light of this exchange, Interlochen felt a responsibility to Green Lake Township and the community to assert our legal claim and trigger the reverter clause, rather than allowing the property to continue to remain idle and vacant.”

She adds: “Prior to the hearing before the Grand Traverse County Circuit Court, our case proceeded through a substantive mediation process, which produced no resolution. The property was not a priority for TCAPS. By asserting ownership, Interlochen would be in a position to provide much-needed leadership and direction for the redevelopment effort.”

ICA has been gathering community feedback on how to use the building since last fall. Ideas being considered “include a much-needed daycare to serve local families, after-school extracurricular arts programs for Traverse City-area children, joint programming with the Interlochen Public Library, and arts classes for adults through Interlochen College of Creative Arts,” according to ICA. 

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