TRAVERSE CITY — A grant secured by embattled state representative Larry Inman could bail out Traverse City Area Public Schools.
The Michigan Enhancement grant, which was approved during a $1.3 billion lame-duck congressional spending spree in December, could cover all but $7,000 of the $707,000 in school aid funding reclaimed by the state. Former State Superintendent Sheila Alles denied TCAPS’ appeal last week and ruled the district erroneously reported the number of students enrolled in the Northern Michigan Partnership, its virtual home-school program, resulting in the district receiving more funding for the 2017-18 school year than allowed.
TCAPS is likely to lose another $1.17 million after the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District’s auditor finalized the numbers for program’s 2018-19 school year and recommended a deduction of per-pupil funding equal to 149 students. Although the $700,000 will come from state coffers, taxpayers will foot the entire $1.8 million bill for the district’s error.
Patricia Henkel, a 2018 candidate for the TCAPS Board of Education, previously criticized the way the district handles it finances and now said parents and community members “have good reason to feel uneasy” after the state’s ruling.
“The taxpayers of Michigan would most certainly prefer to spend that money on other useful projects, rather than paying TCAPS’ fine,” Henkel said. “Taxpayers are rightfully upset, and the fact that this bill was sponsored hastily by Inman, who is now facing federal charges of bribery and being petitioned to resign, also raises a lot of eyebrows.”
Former TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma spoke with Inman in October 2018 after the district officially received notice of the MDE’s findings. Inman, at the time, called the ruling “garbage” and said he would not allow the state to reclaim those funds. Inman was indicted in May on charges of attempted extortion, bribery and lying to a federal agent.
Henkel said her greatest concern — outside of the money lost — was the missed chance to listen to Michigan Department of Education officials and make adjustments last year.
“Instead, we saw leadership under Paul Soma create a contentious battle with the MDE,” she said. “That may now make his successor Ann Cardon’s job to unruffle feathers even more difficult.”
Kyle Guerrant, MDE deputy superintendent, told officials at the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which administers legislative grants, to hold off on giving TCAPS the $700,000 until the district exhausted its appeals process.
“Once the decision came out last week, I shared that with my colleagues over there and said, ‘Here’s the superintendent’s decision. The district lost its appeal, so feel free to move forward with whatever you need to do on your end to pay the district,’” Guerrant said.
Guerrant declined to comment if it was appropriate for TCAPS to seek a bailout on the taxpayers’ behalf to cover the district’s mistake. The grant TCAPS is set to receive was one of 74 approved, totaling $115.5 million, in December.
“I know they’re paying people across a number of spectrums to bail out,” Guerrant said. “The dollars that were put in those type of slush fund things was in education and fisheries and these other things. Everybody was using that as a tool to direct funding to something important to them.”
TCAPS Board of Education members are set to discuss the grant in closed session Monday during their retreat at the Sabin Center, according to Board President Sue Kelly. She said it remains to be seen if the district can “beg for any relief” beyond the $700,000.
“We certainly will ask the question,” Kelly said. “The district has a really good resiliency, and we just want to have everything come together as best as it possibly can for students in the Northern Michigan Partnership.”
Kelly said the district does not have a plan it can put in place to offer home-school students services for 2019-20, but she added district officials are looking at the ‘20-21 school year to build a program that supports those students and “conforms to the clarified regulations.”