Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 4, 2013

TCAPS: 2nd open meetings violation?

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A former Grand Traverse County commissioner who sued Traverse City Area Public Schools for allegedly violating state open meeting laws has leveled additional claims of wrongdoing, and some district board members are fed up with him.

Jason Gillman recently added a charge to his ongoing lawsuit that accuses TCAPS of “misleading the public” as to the time and place of a meeting to discuss last fall’s failed $100-million bond proposal. The amended lawsuit states TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins entered into exchange program “contracts” with two Chinese schools in November, even though the district’s Board of Education neither deliberated nor decided in a public meeting to authorize the agreements.

”There’s no question about it,” Gillman said. “This is something that falls under the Open Meetings Act. This is a big deal.”

Michigan’s Secretary of State validated another Gillman charge of district wrongdoing last month. The state found TCAPS violated election laws while promoting its 2012 bond proposal.

Some TCAPS board members criticized Gillman this week, and said he hampers efforts to improve the largest school district in the Grand Traverse region.

“He’s adding zero value to our kids’ education,” Board member Gary Appel said. “Zero value to our community.”

Board member Megan Crandall said Gillman is costing TCAPS money, whether through attorney fees or higher insurance premiums.

“Does he not want the district to move forward on anything?” Crandall said. “He’s costing the taxpayers, and I don’t know why that hasn’t been part of the conversation.”

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to conduct nearly all business and decisions at public meetings.

OMA defines “decisions” as any “action, vote ... or measure on which a vote by members of a public body is required and by which a public body effectuates or formulates public policy.”

Cousins had not seen Gillman’s amended complaint as of Friday and declined comment on the new accusations.

Cousins did describe the signed documents as “sister-school agreements,” not contracts. Neither party is legally bound to the terms of the agreements, Cousins said.

The essential question from an OMA violation standpoint is whether such agreements constitute policy decisions over which the TCAPS Board of Education would normally have authority, said Jennifer Dukarski, a Michigan Press Association attorney.

“Whether it’s binding or not is absolutely irrelevant,” Dukarski said. “If it’s a decision the board would normally take or make, it should be done publicly.”

TCAPS Board member Marjorie Rich said the board was open about its intentions to pursue exchange programs in China and said past exchange relationships developed through informal, organic contact with overseas schools.

“It’s not as though we were privately scheming to get these agreements,” she said.

One of the agreements outlined a relationship between TCAPS and Nanhu Dongyuan Primary School based on student exchanges, language camps and business internships, though it offered no details about the different proposed programs.

The other agreement was titled a “cooperation agreement,” between TCAPS and Dalian University of Technology’s high school. It outlined specific details of student and teacher exchanges, including where individuals will stay during exchanges and their responsibility to personally cover travel and other costs.

The Dailian University agreement stated hosts schools “should assure the absolute safety” of teachers and students.

Six TCAPS administrators, including Cousins, quietly traveled to China last fall the day after local voters rejected the bond proposal.

Cousins later said the district erred when officials failed to inform the public of the trip. Gillman, a local Tea Party activist, believes the secrecy was tied to district efforts to promote the bond question.

“They stayed away from the whole China thing in order to flavor, or at least not to flavor, the bond millage,” he said.