TRAVERSE CITY — Text messages and conversations between Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education trustees reveal former Superintendent Ann Cardon was heading for the district’s exit door shortly after a contentious closed session Oct. 7.
Cardon did not sign the separation agreement — one that paid her $180,000 to resign — until Oct. 15, and the board did not approve it until two days later. However, Board President Sue Kelly said Friday attorneys for both Cardon and the district began working on the the agreement as early as Oct. 9, and trustee Erica Moon Mohr said she left an Oct. 8 conversation with Cardon believing the separation was “a done deal.”
During an Oct. 10 interview with the Record-Eagle, Kelly replied “no comment” when asked if a separation agreement for Cardon was being brokered at the time. Kelly said after an Oct. 11 board meeting that Cardon remained the TCAPS superintendent, but she walked away from a Record-Eagle reporter when asked if the district would move forward with Cardon at the helm.
In an Oct. 12 text exchange between Moon Mohr and Board Treasurer Matt Anderson, Moon Mohr said, “We need to fight to get Ann to stay. There is a chance.” Anderson replied that he didn’t see how there was a chance and that “she would have to withdraw the offer and put it to a vote for termination.”
Anderson said Friday he could not recall to whom he was referring when he wrote “she.”
“It took me some time to process and assess the situation,” Anderson said. “Unfortunately, Ann Cardon chose — pretty quickly — to resign.”
According to Moon Mohr, Cardon said it was clear the “four of them” — Kelly and trustees Jane Klegman, Pam Forton and Jeff Leonhardt — “don’t want me here.” Moon Mohr called Anderson the morning after the Oct. 7 closed session and told him it was clear Cardon was being forced out.
“They made her sign a mutual separation agreement,” Moon Mohr said. “They did that with the understanding that she would be paid. If they found proof to terminate her — which they never would have done because there wasn’t any proof — then she never would have gotten any compensation. They talked her into it.”
Kelly disputes that claim. She said Moon Mohr’s assertions about the closed session made in a letter obtained by the Record-Eagle and comments made both on social media and during the Oct. 11 meeting changed the dynamics of the ongoing negotiations between Cardon’s attorney and the district’s legal counsel. Cardon’s attorney changed the demands, Kelly said.
That might be the reason why the Michigan State Police is investigating Moon Mohr for a possible Open Meetings Act violation. MSP Lt. Ryan Tabaczka would not confirm that Moon Mohr is the subject of the investigation but he did confirm a TCAPS board member is under investigation on accusations of an OMA violation.
Moon Mohr confirmed she is the board member in question.
“This is retaliation,” Moon Mohr said. “They’re just trying to come after me for calling out their behaviors.”
Tabaczka also confirmed the investigation was requested by “other board members and/or others affiliated with TCAPS,” and he said he expects it to be forwarded to the Grand Traverse County prosecutor for consideration. Intentional violation of OMA can yield a misdemeanor charge with a maximum penalty of $1,000 and up to $500 in civil fines.
“We are concerned,” Kelly said. “Erica certainly was writing letters about things that happened in closed session, whether they were right or wrong, and openly discussed it in the Record-Eagle and said when she was advised that it was illegal that she didn’t care.”
Moon Mohr has retained legal counsel outside of TCAPS, and she argues the situation between Cardon and others in the district already escalated to the point of attorneys being involved before anything was said behind closed doors on Oct. 7 and before her letter went public Oct. 11.
“I think Ann would have been gone anyway, whether I’d written that letter to the board members or not,” Moon Mohr said.
The Oct. 7 closed session was the point of no return for Cardon, but tensions between the former superintendent and others in the district were building for at least six weeks before the meeting, Moon Mohr said. She recounted hearing of an issue with Cardon not yet meeting with the teachers union, and emails provided to the Record-Eagle through a Freedom of Information Act request show problems between Klegman, Leonhardt and Forton regarding Cardon’s communication skills.
There was also the widely publicized difference of opinion on the School Finance Resource Collaborative.
Kelly said there wasn’t “any strife” with Cardon until Oct. 8, but she admitted there were issues she observed that she felt needed to be brought to the board’s attention. Thus the creation of a complaint letter that was presented to the trustees during the Oct. 7 closed session.
The Record-Eagle sought this document through the Freedom of Information Act, but TCAPS denied the request and denied an appeal of the denial.
Cardon, Moon Mohr and Anderson met Oct. 16, the day after Cardon signed the separation agreement, to discuss the situation. Moon Mohr said she tried to convince Cardon to stay and that Cardon had a great deal of support in the community. Cardon was already packing up her office in boxes and told Moon Mohr to “let this go,” Moon Mohr said.
“Ann was just quietly sobbing. Her message to me was, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Moon Mohr said. “She said she couldn’t unhear what was said in that room and that she couldn’t move past it and that she had never been treated like that in her 26 years in education.”
Moon Mohr said she has not talked to Cardon since that meeting. Anderson declined to comment on the Oct. 16 meeting, citing a request from Cardon to keep their discussion confidential. Anderson said the goal now is to move past what happened in October and get back to the business at hand, including hiring a new superintendent.
“I’m involved in the daily and important work of trying to do what I was elected to do,” he said, “which was to improve student achievement within TCAPS and help move our community forward.”