It has been an up-and-down year for Traverse City Area Public Schools, which makes this a perfect time for the school board to take a long look at the district's internal workings and decide if it's time for a shakeup.
There have been positive strides, including the creation and expansion of innovative offerings at the elementary level. The district is emphasizing much-needed language programs, has expanded its Montessori program, and enrollment is up.
But recent missteps have opened district leadership to criticism that will be hard to shake in coming months. Worse is that much of the bad news has been self-inflicted.
Many voters would likely include the district's decision to seek a $100 million bond issue — crushed at the polls — to continue reconstructing and upgrading district elementary schools in the list of bad decisions, but that's debatable. Board members made a strong case for the bond and obviously believed it was the right thing to do.
What isn't in question is that the powers that be stumbled badly in selling the bond to a doubting public. A mailer to voters appeared to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of Michigan law by advocating a "yes" vote for the bond. State law has long said a public body can spend public money only to educate voters, not sway them. The mailer and a district web page clearly crossed that line, and many voters were offended.
The worst was yet to come. Just a few days after the Nov. 6 election, word leaked out that six TCAPS officials, including Superintendent Stephen Cousins; Associate Superintendent Jayne Mohr; West and Central high school principals Joe Tibaldi and Rick Vandermolen; Katie Bonne, International School at Bertha Vos director; and district Communications Director Alison Arnold, were on an eight-day trip to China for conferences and meetings with Chinese educational leaders.
Because the Chinese picked up nearly the entire tab, the trip cost the district just $7,000; in light of its multi million dollar annual budget, that's a paltry sum. The real cost was the public relations gaffe the trip — and the fact it was largely kept under wraps — created.
Taken alone, the failed millage, the mailer and the China trip all would have been costly in terms of public relations. Together, they painted a picture of district officials who were out of touch with voters and unwilling to be up front with the public about public business.
Cousins said after the trip the district didn't want to "muddy the waters with anything" before the election. "Looking back, I think we should have done a press release," he said.
No kidding. If voters had known since August that the trip was on and was going to cost just $7,000, it would have been long forgotten — or at least understood — by Nov. 6.
This is a good school board. While recent flubs may test that assertion, the board has strong leadership and a real sense of accountability. Despite misgivings they approved the bond issue because it was a continuation of an earlier promise to repair aging schools, upgrade infrastructure and technology and do long-delayed but necessary work at Central High School. The board felt obligated to ask, and it did.
It's time, then, for the school board to demand the same kind of accountability from the administration, time to take a long look at the structure and the people in decision-making positions and decide if a restructuring is needed.
The district got nicked earlier this year when a couple people in positions of authority failed to act in the case of a former district janitor who was charged with multiple sexual assaults on a 13-year-old student.
Cousins ordered suspensions and said administrators are expected to know, and apply, district rules. The same goes for knowing what the district can and can't do in the midst of an election campaign or when to tell the public that a few folks on the public payroll are jetting to China.
None of this has to happen tomorrow. But questions have to be asked and answered, and soon.