TRAVERSE CITY — Ann Cardon walked into her first day as Traverse City Area Public Schools superintendent with a lot on her plate.
Just the day before, the Michigan Department of Education informed the district that its appeal regarding a $707,000 reclamation of state aid had been denied — and that an additional $1.2 million is also likely to be taken back. Cardon said she knew the decision was coming, but it did not make starting her day any easier.
“We’re disappointed in the decision,” Cardon said. “I’ll be working directly with the state to see what we can do to remedy it.”
What Cardon said did make the transition easier was the graciousness of TCAPS board trustees, the now-former superintendent Paul Soma, the administration and the executive team. Cardon spent six days — two days each during the last three weeks of July — getting acclimated with TCAPS and the surrounding community.
Any of the nerves Cardon was feeling leading up to Day 1 dissipated during those three weeks, and she is set to reveal her entry plan to the public and trustees at a board retreat Aug. 12. Cardon said she’ll be on a listening tour throughout the district.
“I have the same set of questions, and I’ll tweak them just a bit,” she said. “What does TCAPS do great? How do we know we’re great? What are some things that we can improve on? Just really listening to what folks have to say about taking us to the next level.”
Cardon replaced Soma, who spent 17 years with TCAPS and five of those as superintendent. She comes in with 24 years of experience in education.
“Ann is going to be so good for the community, for Traverse City,” TCAPS Board President Sue Kelly said in June. “We have such a high opinion of her as a professional. Her years of experience and her whole career path has just impressed me right from the get-go.”
Cardon came from a district — St. Joseph Public Schools — with less than half the enrollment of TCAPS and five schools. But she is no stranger to difficult situations.
She played a “huge role,” as she stated, in the recent debate over whether or not to close Benton Harbor High School, which was her neighboring district. A tentative agreement between Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and Benton Harbor officials set certain benchmarks — including better test scores and a balanced budget — to keep the school open.
“On one side of the river, you’re receiving one level of education. On the other side, you’re receiving another level,” Cardon said. “When I look at the scores of the students in Benton Harbor and they’re so bad, it just makes me feel really bad for the kids and their education.”
Leaving St. Joseph with that cloud still lingering over Benton Harbor was difficult, Cardon said. She is not sure what the right answer is to solve the problem, but she supports Whitmer and her plan — if the high school closes — to allow Benton Harbor to run a K-8 district while “getting its house in order” before reopening the high school.
Those within TCAPS are already seeing the benefits Cardon will bring to the district.
Dan Tiesworth, new president of the Traverse City Administrators Association, is hopeful Cardon will continue making progress in repairing the relationship between the TCAA and executive team that had been frayed by Soma’s and others’ alleged treatment of some principals.
“We’ve mended a lot of fences and moved past all of that,” Tiesworth said. “In the first year, especially with any leadership, to build those strong bonds with people gives you a true understanding of where the district is and can really help you find priorities as far as what the district needs.”
Cardon’s plate will remain full as TCAPS works on full implementation of the Blueprint strategic plan, the construction of a new Montessori school and dozens of projects that have been approved after a $107 million bond was passed last year.
The district will also be dismissing Blair and Traverse Heights students early on some days for teachers to get professional development, a similar tactic to what Cardon used at St. Joseph.
“Having time for teachers to learn together and then take what they’re learning and put it into a plan for how they’re going to teach the next day is critical. It’s a great step for our district,” she said. “Teachers working together are smarter together.”