TRAVERSE CITY — A lawsuit argues Traverse City Area Public Schools board officials broke transparency laws in handling former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s unexpected October departure.
The suit, filed in 13th Circuit Court Friday by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, names both the TCAPS Board of Education and its President Sue Kelly. It claims “willful and intentional” actions taken by both, in denying or delaying Freedom of Information Act requests and misusing closed sessions, violated FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.
“We’ve been counseled not to release any requested document without court order,” Kelly said Friday. “We understand this is the next step in the process, and we certainly want to do everything possible to work with (the Record-Eagle) and represent the district properly.”
Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka, Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar and TCAPS board members Matt Anderson, Jeff Leonhardt, Jane Klegman and Ben McGuire did not return calls Friday. Board member Pam Forton declined comment.
Robin Luce-Herrmann, Michigan Press Association counsel and attorney for the Record-Eagle, also declined to discuss the suit.
“I think the complaint speaks for itself,” she said. “We’ll leave it at that for now.”
A lack of transparency spurred much public outcry since Cardon’s departure. Parents and community members have organized recall efforts against three board members — Kelly included — and meetings have been rife with impassioned public comments and large crowds.
A small group has since organized, called TCAPS Transparency, aiming to hold the board accountable for its actions and spearhead recall efforts. Organizers Ian Ashton, Justin Van Rheenen and Patricia Henkel did not immediately return calls Friday.
The cracks began to form in early October, when rumors of Cardon’s supposed departure spread through the district and board members held a closed session to hear a complaint about a staff member. Parents demanded answers from school board members, who stayed largely mum until Oct. 17, when trustees voted to approve Cardon’s $180,000 mutual separation agreement.
Cardon garnered enthusiasm from board members during the hiring process and was the only one of six candidates asked back for follow-up interviews in last year’s superintendent search. The board unanimously approved her three-year contract.
Parents have watched the matter unfold closely.
“I think that the board is acting with complete disregard for the amount of transparency the community wants, and we see Sue Kelly at the head of this organization whose objective is to keep the public out of the district’s business,” said TCAPS parent and vocal district critic Deyar Jamil. “This is not a matter of ignorance or lack of knowledge — this is a concerted effort to hide documents and hide information from the public.”
The first count of the Record-Eagle’s suit seeks the release of the complaint letter aimed at Cardon, which was authored by Kelly and discussed in closed session. No details of its content have been shared as far as why Cardon left.
The district denied a public records request for the letter under FOIA — a decision they’ve upheld through the appeal process, according to the complaint.
TCAPS trustees and the district’s counsel have previously claimed they can’t and won’t release the letter absent a court order.
“Some agreements were signed, and I have to follow the law,” Forton said, declining further discussion of the matter.
Board member Erica Moon Mohr said the board’s reasoning in withholding the complaint is because Cardon requested it remain confidential.
But she doesn’t agree it should be withheld.
“I believe that taxpayers should understand exactly what happened,” Moon Mohr said Friday. “Right now, there’s a lot of confusion and speculation, and I don’t think that’s good for anybody.”
“Ann Cardon requested that remain confidential, and we believe that we have to conform to that,” Kelly said. “We worked very diligently to have as much in open session as possible. If a staff member or parents request closed session, we have to respect that.”
The Record-Eagle suit also claims the district “deliberately delayed” handling of multiple FOIA requests and improperly invoked closed sessions under OMA.
It argues the TCAPS board made multiple decisions following the complaint against Cardon, and that “none of these decisions were made at an open meeting and each separately constitutes a violation of OMA.”
The complaint also accuses Kelly of willfully acting as “leader and instigator of the board’s OMA violations, as evidenced by her texts and emails.”
The suit requests the withheld document be released and the court compels compliance with transparency laws, as well as attorney fees, punitive damages and any further financial relief the court sees fit.
TCAPS board members will likely be served next week, Herrmann said. From there, they’ll have 21 days to file a response to the complaint.
“I’m very proud of the Record-Eagle for following through on this and I know a lot of people are. I think it means a lot to this community,” Moon Mohr said. “They deserve an answer.”
See updates at www.record-eagle.com.