Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Picks Next Superintendent

By Beth Milligan | May 21, 2020

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members unanimously voted Wednesday to hire Alpena Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John VanWagoner as the district’s new superintendent – a move they said will best position TCAPS to navigate a tough road ahead during the pandemic.

Board members took less than an hour to reach their decision Wednesday after spending weeks in virtual interviews, community forums, and stakeholder meetings determining who should be the district’s next leader. VanWagoner, who has served as superintendent of Alpena Public Schools for four years, was one of two finalists for the position along with Roseville (California) Joint Union High School District Superintendent Dr. Denise Herrmann. Board members described both candidates as outstanding finalists, with multiple trustees saying they would be happy with either VanWagoner or Herrmann at the helm.

But the circumstances of the pandemic gave VanWagoner an edge as board members stressed the importance of hiring a candidate with local and state connections and financial acumen who could help lead TCAPS through a difficult period ahead. Prior to his stint in Alpena, VanWagoner worked in education for over two decades as a teacher, school administrator, instructional specialist, high school redesign manager, legislative liaison for the Michigan Department of Education, and associate superintendent. In those roles, he told board members, he built extensive relationships throughout the state, including with legislators in Lansing. In Alpena, VanWagoner helped turn the district’s finances around – raising the fund balance from two percent to 15 percent – and got the first school bond passed in Alpena in 23 years.

Board Secretary Pam Forton said that VanWagoner’s understanding of Michigan laws and per-pupil funding inequities, as well as his experience in rural northern Michigan districts – Alpena is the second largest district in the region after TCAPS, with a bigger geographic footprint – would be an immediate asset. “He’s very vocal with working with legislators all across the state. If all things were equal, I would be happy with either one of our (candidate) choices, but all things are not equal,” she said – adding that the next superintendent will need to immediately address looming financial and classroom issues related to the pandemic.

Other board members praised VanWagoner’s enthusiasm and passion for education, his commitment to being visible and engaged in the community, his embrace of technology, and his distributive leadership approach. Vice President Jeff Leonhardt said it would be “bad for the district” to bring in a superintendent who couldn’t effectively delegate, and said he liked VanWagoner’s approach to creatively looking for revenue opportunities to bolster budgets instead of focusing exclusively on cuts. “I love the fact that he's looking for resources and talking about cuts second,” he said. “He may not be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat (during the pandemic)...but he has experience.”

Board Treasurer Matt Anderson said that community relationship building was “very important” to him and that he thought TCAPS “can do a better job of that here in TC.” Trustee Erica Moon Mohr, who initially supported Herrmann as her top pick but ultimately made the motion to hire VanWagoner, said her only concern was wanting to make sure VanWagoner would bring innovation and outside-the-box thinking to the district. “I just want to make sure we don't fall into that status quo,” she said.

Traverse Connect hosted virtual forums with both superintendent candidates to give them a chance to address the local business community. President and CEO Warren Call says VanWagoner “seems to have a very broad spectrum of educational and technical skills…he is very community-oriented, very family-oriented.” Call says VanWagoner spoke during his forum about how he set up regular meetings with parents to hear their feedback – both positive and negative – and that he seemed open to listening and taking criticism. “I was really impressed with his business acumen and his ability to be an engaged community leader,” Call says.

After the TCAPS board vote Wednesday, VanWagoner spoke with The Ticker by phone and said he was “very excited and thankful for the opportunity to come and serve” at TCAPS. VanWagoner previously told board members coming to Traverse City was a dream job – one of the few for which he would consider uprooting his family and leaving Alpena – and that he hopes to finish out his career in Traverse City. Board members aren’t expected to finalize VanWagoner's contract until June, but he plans to virtually attend upcoming board meetings and says he will focus on coming to Traverse City to “start building relationships, introduce myself, and learn about the strengths and needs and areas of concern.”

In the months ahead, says VanWagoner, wrestling with the ramifications of the pandemic and potential state cuts to per-pupil funding will be a key priority. “We’re in one of the worst situations economically in the state since the Great Depression,” he says. “We have to look at all avenues to make sure our kids get the best education…and keep cuts as far away from them as possible. That’s going to be top on my list.”

Both VanWagoner and board members addressed the need to help TCAPS heal and move forward following the controversy and community fallout surrounding the resignation of former superintendent Ann Cardon. “He needs our board members, every one of us, to support him...to help him be successful here,” said Moon Mohr. “Because we can't go through what we went through (again). This is the time we come together and do the right thing for students.” VanWagoner says he is ready to do his part on that front. “As I told the board, it’s time for a new day,” he says. “It’s time for us to support our kids and do that in a very clear, transparent, and honest way. I’m going in as my own person, with no alliances or preconceived notions. I want to come in and listen to every board member and the community, and do everything we can collectively to provide a quality education for students.”

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