TRAVERSE CITY — An open forum in the search for a new Traverse City Area Public Schools superintendent turned into a catharsis for people seeking a space to air their grievances with the district — although few district officials were present.
Jim Morse and Alena Zachery-Ross — of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, which is the firm leading the search — led the community gathering at Traverse City West Middle School on Wednesday. Although just about 20 people attended the meeting, which was double the previous night’s attendance, those present were vocal in their criticism of the current leadership on the district’s board of education and the previous search for a superintendent.
Tuesday’s forum was slightly more subdued, but Morse called those in attendance Wednesday “vigorous.”
TCAPS is set to have its fourth superintendent in less than a year after Paul Soma retired in July 2019 and his successor, Ann Cardon, lasted less than 80 days after conflict with the board led to her resignation and a $180,000 severance payout in October. Jim Pavelka now serves as the interim superintendent.
The reasons for Cardon’s exit remain hidden from public eyes, but many in the audience Wednesday said Cardon clashed with some board trustees about the approach to securing equitable funding as well as the district’s reliance on the Blueprint, a strategic overhaul the board adopted in January 2019.
Justin Van Rheenen, a co-founder of the TCAPS Transparency group, said candidates need to be made aware of the volatile situation at TCAPS and about the board’s view of the School Finance Research Collaborative’s findings and recommendations regarding funding. TCAPS was the only school district to publicly and officially dismiss the SFRC’s stance.
“What we faced in the fall could possibly happen again,” Van Rheenen said. “We have a board that is anti-new ideas or anti-ideas that aren’t their own. Right now, our board’s not trying to even do something. They’re doing nothing when it comes to funding.”
Judy Arnold, a parent of a TCAPS student, was critical of the last search process and called the final interview a “parade tour.” Arnold said she’d served on a search committee to find a principal, and she found that process was much more intensive and thorough than what the board did before hiring Cardon.
“The only interview that the board did was a 45-minute interview with the prior larger group. There was no final interview,” Arnold said. “The first time around, I expressed my disbelief with the process. I encourage the board to really put these people through the paces. This is our top-level person.”
Those in attendance spent nearly 90 minutes telling Morse and Zachery-Ross what strengths TCAPS has, what challenges a new superintendent will face and what characteristics that superintendent will need to succeed in the role.
Many spoke of a need for someone with a solid background in education and a foundation in teaching and learning. Others sought someone with strong communication skills, courage, a commitment to transparency and a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying at any level and by any person in the district.
Scott Tucker said the district needs a true leader and someone who can “do the job a superintendent is required to do.”
“We need someone that can lead the teachers, that can take care of the workplace and can take care of our kids,” Tucker said.
Some, like Patricia Henkel, asked why this board should even be allowed to choose the next superintendent when three trustees — Sue Kelly, Pam Forton and Matt Anderson — are facing a recall effort, the entire board and Kelly are named in a lawsuit from the Record-Eagle alleging multiple Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act violations, and another trustee — Erica Moon Mohr — could face prosecution for an alleged OMA violation during a meeting when news of Cardon’s impending departure went public.
Michele Worden said TCAPS is a district in dire need of a turnaround.
“Even though from the outside, if you cherry pick your metrics, it doesn’t look like that,” Worden said, “it’s not really like that.”
Morse and Zachery-Ross assured the audience the feedback they received would be taken seriously when creating the candidate profile. The plan is for Morse and Zachery-Ross to present that profile at the March 9 board meeting after gathering data from the online survey, community forums and meetings with community stakeholders.
“We know the right leader will help the district move forward,” Zachery-Ross said. “We know that you need the stability, that you need someone who’s going to listen, who you’re going to feel safe and secure that your children, grandchildren and family members are coming into a district that’s progressing.”