KALKASKA — Words of support for Terry Starr followed a call for firing the Kalkaska Public Schools superintendent during the district’s board of education meeting Monday.
Starr, who was hired last year as Kalkaska’s superintendent, faces criminal charges stemming from his time as the principal at Cherryland Middle School in Elk Rapids.
He is set to appear for a preliminary examination in Bellaire on Wednesday after being accused of falsely reporting sexual abuse allegations involving Elk Rapids High School Principal Mike Travis and a student.
Starr was arraigned in April on counts of false report of a felony, intentional false report of child abuse and slander. He plead not guilty to the charges.
Aaron Popa, a Kalkaska resident, asked the KPS trustees to fire Starr, an action he said would knock the district out of the “stagnant” state it is in.
Board members placed Starr on paid administrative leave after he was arraigned and then suspended him without pay in late June after hiring former Kalkaska Superintendent Lee Sandy to return to his post on an interim basis.
Popa said Sandy is “only a temporary solution.”
“This is not getting us into the next decade. This is getting us to tomorrow,” Popa said. “This district can’t live to get to tomorrow. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to look long term. The more we drag this out and the longer this process goes, the further behind we’re going to be.”
Michigan State Police investigators claim Starr sent an anonymous letter to several Elk Rapids Public Schools officials, including himself, accusing Travis of what would “amount to felonious behavior,” according to a probable cause statement. The letter writer claimed the behavior involved “groping my bottom,” according to the statement.
Investigators identified the supposed author of the letter who denied the allegations, the statement shows. He or she pointed to the wording of the letter, specifically the use of the word “bottom,” in arguing that it wasn’t his or her doing. “Bottom” wasn’t a term people of his or her age used, according to the statement.
Starr was the only person who investigators interviewed about the allegations to use the term “bottom,” which led troopers to determine Starr likely was the person who sent the letters, according to the statement.
“Let’s say Wednesday, they drop everything — it’s not going to happen, but let’s say it does,” Popa said during public comment Monday. “Now this person is back here, everybody knows what he’s accused of, who feels comfortable working under this person and that they’re not going to be the next target if they say something he doesn’t like?”
Daryl Dimon, a teacher at Kalkaska Middle School, was quick to raise his hand in support of Starr.
“You asked who would feel comfortable? That would be me. One thousand percent,” Dimon said. “He’s done more for this district in 8 months than anyone I could name could do in their lifetime.”
Dimon believes “99 percent” of the district’s staff would welcome Starr back. Many in the community — such as Dot Dingman and Nancy Grody — seem to feel that way as well.
“Let’s not be judge and jury here. To be accused of something does not mean you’re guilty,” Dingman said. “The audacity of him (Popa) saying, ‘Do you feel uncomfortable?’ — that’s out of place. We’d welcome him (Starr) back tomorrow.”
Grody pointed to Starr’s interactions with students, the handwritten notes of praise he doles out and the changes he has made to welcome the community into the school as reasons to bring him back.
“He has been a force that has uplifted our kids,” she said. “I am just disheartened that he is not with us.”
Rachael Birgy, Kalkaska Board of Education president, would not go into specifics but said trustees are doing things “behind the scenes” to “make sure the district is in a safe position.” Starr is still listed on the Kalkaska Public Schools’ website as the district’s superintendent.
“He is still legally our employee,” Birgy said. “There are possibilities for him coming back, yes, but we won’t know until we see how the legal course of action takes place.”
Dingman is confident the charges will be dropped, but she said the simple presence of the allegations against Starr have tarnished his reputation.
“You go through hell — and even if you’re found innocent, you’re never really innocent again,” she said. “That’s not fair.”