TRAVERSE CITY — Ann Cardon took a $180,000 payment to walk away from Traverse City Area Public Schools less than three months after her first day as superintendent.
Cardon signed a separation agreement Oct. 15, but text messages between Cardon and TCAPS Board of Education President Sue Kelly show Cardon informed some district officials of her intent to leave as early as Oct. 9. Kelly confirmed as much Tuesday evening, as did board trustee Erica Moon Mohr.
The district leaders’ text conversation was released in response to a Record-Eagle Freedom of Information Act request filed with the district more than 20 days ago. The records also serve as a first glimpse of the wrangling that preceded the newly-hired superintendent’s abrupt exit.
The documents show Cardon sent an email to Kelly shortly before 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 9 asking for “a copy of the complaint against me,” according to records released in response to a FOIA request. In an Oct. 9 text message from Cardon to Kelly at 1:39 p.m., Cardon said, “I called Erica and asked her to respect my decision and let this happen. She said she would.” A second message followed that said, “I also reiterated that what was discussed in closed session needed to remain confidential.”
“That’s what she told Erica. That’s what she told me,” Kelly said. “There’s always hope that any kind of relationship can be salvaged and can be worked on, and that’s certainly what we were working diligently towards.”
Kelly said that work was derailed when information from an Oct. 7 closed session, during which a complaint against Cardon was levied, was made public on Oct. 11. More than 100 people attended a special meeting a few hours later, and fired 90 minutes of public comments where speakers hurled accusations against board members they believe worked to force Cardon to resign.
Kelly said it was an unfortunate set of circumstances that forced the board to make a financial decision to end its contract with Cardon. The separation agreement stated “the Superintendent and School District have decided to amicably terminate their relationship, with the Superintendent pursuing other professional opportunities.”
“Everything went wild,” Kelly said. “It put the district in a very bad position.”
Moon Mohr said although the “writing was on the wall” that Cardon was on her way out if four board members — Kelly, Jane Klegman, Pam Forton and Jeff Leonhardt — didn’t resign. Moon Mohr said she thought the groundswell of community support could change Cardon’s mind.
“I had a ray of hope she was going to see the outpouring of support from the community, realize these four were going to be forced out at some point and want to stay around,” Moon Mohr said.
The Record-Eagle submitted several FOIA requests in the days prior to Cardon’s resignation. One request was for a copy of “the letter distributed to Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education members on Oct. 7, 2019, regarding a complaint against TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon.”
TCAPS officials denied the request, stating the “documentation that was specifically and exclusively prepared for use in a closed session of the Board. Such notes/documentation are exempt from disclosure under Section 13(1)(d) of the FOIA and Section 7(2) of the Open Meetings Act.”
Jennifer Dukarski, deputy general counsel for the Michigan Press Association, said those statute cited applies only to meeting minutes from the closed session and not any documentation provided to all board members during a closed session.
“It should be open to FOIA,” Dukarski said. “There’s no reason why anything distributed should be exempt. That section of OMA protects minutes and minutes only. If there was something distributed at that meeting, the minutes exemption does not protect it.”
Cardon’s personnel file also was requested and provided, but the complaint was not included.
A portion of the separation agreement states that any pending “grievances, complaints, lawsuits, or charges of any kind filed with any forum, if any, related to the Superintendent, shall be deemed withdrawn.” An August 1980 opinion from the Michigan Attorney General allows dismissed complaints to be suppressed or expunged only if they’re determined to have been unfounded.
Michigan’s Supreme Court sets standards that, as a general rule, documents related to a public school employee’s job performance do not fall under FOIA’s privacy exemptions.
In a separate response to a FOIA seeking all communications between TCAPS board members and executive team members regarding Cardon, two text messages from Kelly dated Oct. 10 were redacted from the FOIA response as were several messages between 10:54 a.m.-1:32 p.m. on Oct. 11. An Aug. 9 email from Klegman to Cardon also was redacted.
Two portions of the response containing roughly eight pages were completely redacted and labeled “Fwd: Letter of concern” and “Re: Letter of concern.” TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar said the withheld sections were attorney-client privileged information in response to Moon Mohr’s letter that was obtained by the Record-Eagle on Oct. 10 and confirmed by Moon Mohr the following day.
“There are going to be pieces and holes in this because it just is what it is,” Guitar said. “The attorney said, ‘That is redactable, so redact the whole thing.’ So we did.”
No written response was provided for most other redactions.
The only other explanation for redactions responded to requests for complaints against Cardon and Associate Superintendent Jame McCall, which cited Section 5(5)(b) of FOIA that states no known public records of that name or another reasonable name exist.
Dukarski said that is not a valid reason for redacting.
“You have redacted some of this information. You have failed to provide any proper reason for redaction. You have to provide us with everything. Period. End of story,” she said.
A special meeting of the TCAPS board is set for 3 p.m. at the TCAPS Boardman Administration Center to officially approve Ben McGuire as a board member. McGuire was selected Monday by a 3-2 vote, but Kelly said Michigan Association of School Boards attorney Brad Banasik told them they needed to have a minimum of four votes to ratify McGuire.
“This is an administrative hiccup that was my fault,” Kelly said.
TCAPS will livestream the meeting on Facebook.
Brooke Kansier contributed to this report.