TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Area Public Schools fulfilled a longstanding request for a document that caused outrage in the community and sent a superintendent packing less than three months after being hired to lead the district.
Two court decisions in 10 months compelling release of a complaint letter against former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon and a unanimous vote from the TCAPS Board of Education on Monday ended a 20-month fight for the document’s disclosure between the district and the Record-Eagle.
The Record-Eagle filed a lawsuit against TCAPS in January 2020 after a Freedom of Information Act request from Oct. 10, 2019, seeking the document was denied — as was the subsequent appeal.
The letter, which then-TCAPS Board President Sue Kelly wrote before distributing it for an Oct. 7, 2019, closed session, lays out criticisms against Cardon, who was 68 days into her tenure as the top administrator of northern Michigan’s largest school district. Ten days later — and after widespread backlash against the board for its lack of transparency about the events — the board formally ratified Cardon’s resignation and paid her $180,000 in a separation agreement.
Kelly wrote in the letter that she “observed mismanagement and manipulation” from Cardon that she felt obligated to bring before the board. Kelly also wrote that Cardon had a “low level of respect and consideration” for board members, teachers and other district bargaining groups.
Kelly believed Cardon’s public support of a weighted formula for per-student funding, which TCAPS trustees strongly opposed via a unanimous board resolution shortly before Cardon’s hire, was a “flagrant and intentional insult.”
The letter indicates the issue deteriorated the relationship between Kelly and Cardon, prompting Kelly to tell Cardon on Sept. 24, 2019, that “if we can’t get past this difference of opinions we will have to agree to separate,” according to the complaint letter.
Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr said such a statement from Kelly to a sitting superintendent was particularly concerning when she read the letter both in 2019 and on Tuesday.
“Sue had no more power than I did. We’re each one of seven,” Moon Mohr said. “That’s a pretty big statement to make without the support of six other board members, especially considering we had a three-year contract signed. That, to me, is the ultimate bullying statement.”
Neither Jane Klegman nor Jeff Leonhardt, former TCAPS trustees on the board during Cardon’s hiring and resignation, believe Kelly acted inappropriately.
“The board president was doing her job. Sue was doing her job,” Klegman said. “I had no issue with how Sue did her job then, and I have no issue with it now.”
Leonhardt said the tone of the letter wasn’t necessarily negative but instead an accurate representation of Kelly’s concerns, some of which Leonhardt shared and called “red flags.”
Although Kelly was not at the meeting Monday to vote on releasing the letter, board trustees approved the move 6-0 shortly after midnight. Kelly did not respond to a request for comment. Both Klegman and Leonhardt were ousted from the board in November 2020 in a voter-driven backlash that appointed three new trustees.
Few onlookers stayed through the meeting’s end, but Justin Van Rheenen was one of four to wait out more than two hours of public comment and three closed sessions to witness the vote. Van Rheenen had a vested interest in the outcome as one of the co-founders of TCAPS Transparency, a community group formed shortly after Cardon’s resignation.
The letter, Van Rheenen said, shows a “power struggle” between Kelly and Cardon and proves that Kelly attempted to “place herself in a position of authority that was not granted to her as a board member,” referring to Kelly’s attempt to intervene in contract negotiations between Cardon and then-Associate Superintendent Jame McCall.
“Sue never really allowed Ann Cardon to do her job,” Van Rheenen said. “With the power that she thought she had, I don’t know if Sue was capable enough to relinquish her power.”
Blame for Cardon’s exit, the substantial payout and the letter being obscured from public view continues to be volleyed back and forth between TCAPS trustees — both former and current.
Klegman would have been “thrilled” to release the document immediately after the closed session. That was made impossible, Klegman said, because Moon Mohr demanded the letter be attached to the meeting minutes of the closed session, which would bar the public from accessing it.
“Everybody would have seen the letter a long time ago,” Klegman said. “Once she demanded that and once we did that, we were locked into needing a legal order to release it or we would be liable to Ann Cardon who could sue TCAPS.”
Klegman could not recall when Moon Mohr made the demand but said it was before Moon Mohr’s own letter deriding some of her fellow trustees for their actions in the closed session was obtained by the Record-Eagle.
Moon Mohr pushed back on the accusation that she demanded such action, calling it “completely false.”
Klegman also put the $180,000 bill TCAPS paid in a settlement to Cardon at Moon Mohr’s feet. She said once Moon Mohr spoke out against the board’s action and the community supported both her and Cardon, the power dynamic shifted to give Cardon and her lawyer more leverage in separation negotiations.
Moon Mohr’s actions cost TCAPS “a lot of money,” Klegman said.
Moon Mohr did not admit any fault specifically to those accusations, but she said she learned some lessons in the past 20 months.
“Looking back, I would do it differently. I just didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “I probably would have chosen a different path leaving that closed session today than I did then.”
Moon Mohr has not spoken to or communicated with Cardon in any way since her resignation. She is hopeful, however, that Cardon will eventually make a statement about the complaint and “come forward to defend her name.”
Those who have been in contact with Cardon say that is unlikely.
Tim Quinn, a Traverse City resident, reached out to Cardon on Tuesday and said the former superintendent “just wants it to be over.”
“Her career was exemplary. She was well-respected, not only where she worked, but around the state as an outstanding leader,” Quinn said. “This destroyed her career.”
Quinn has worked with hundreds of school boards and superintendents in his time at the Michigan Leadership Institute, the Michigan SUPES Academy, the Broad Center for Superintendents and the Broad Superintendents Academy.
Quinn did not take issue with the process of discussing Cardon’s perceived shortcomings, saying that such matters should be done in a private setting when possible. He was concerned with what felt like a foregone conclusion of Cardon’s departure from TCAPS.
“It appears as though, by the time that letter was written, the decision was already made that Ann Cardon had to go,” Quinn said. “There was not any suggestion that there were opportunities for working through these issues or resolving concerns — they felt it was simply time to part ways with her.”
TCAPS Board President Scott Newman-Bale said he isn’t sure how the letter’s now public release will affect the former superintendent, but he does not expect it to be a negative for Cardon.
“I think it’s just an employment issue and a conversation that should have been heard,” he said.
Newman-Bale said it has been frustrating trying to “do everything perfectly by the book” as trustees worked toward releasing the letter. The process was slow with many hoops to jump through.
“I’m just now happy that we are definitely at a point where we can start moving forward,” Newman-Bale said.