TRAVERSE CITY — Ann Cardon’s sudden departure as Traverse City Area Public Schools superintendent in October 2019 shocked the community.
The public had questions: Why did Cardon depart 78 days into a three-year contract? Why did a school administrator with a polished record receive more than an hour of criticism from four TCAPS school board trustees in a now-infamous Oct. 7, 2019, closed session? Why did trustees pay her $180,000 in return for her resignation?
A year later those questions remain. Aftershocks still rumble.
Whispers trickled out about Cardon’s possible ousting Oct. 10, 2019.
But murmurs in coffee shops and on social media erupted the morning of Oct. 11, a few hours before a last-minute, untelevised special board meeting, when the Record-Eagle published a letter from TCAPS trustee Erica Moon Mohr to her fellow trustees. That letter skewered four trustees for their conduct during a closed session a few days earlier.
More than 100 people showed up to the 3 p.m. meeting that afternoon, packing into a board room buzzing with tension.
It took 12 minutes for anger in the room to boil over. TCAPS Board President Sue Kelly banged her gavel in an attempt to silence parents and community members who sought answers about Cardon’s status with the district.
Audience members stood, shouted, booed and let loose pent-up rage at a school district and a board they felt kept them in the dark.
Paul Baldwin was front and center.
The parent of three TCAPS students was the first to shout down the board, and did so again when Erica Moon Mohr tried to read the prepared statement published earlier that day and Kelly tried to silence her.
“I was angry,” Baldwin said. “We were in the dark. We had no idea what was happening. They wouldn’t tell us.”
Kelly tried to adjourn the meeting unilaterally with a gavel strike, but the melee, and the meeting continued.
She said in hindsight she didn’t really want to end the meeting. She just wanted to calm the crowd to continue the session.
Although the only item on the agenda was for the board to receive privileged attorney-client information, trustees waited for that counsel. Thirty-two people came to the podium for public comment, shredding the board for closed-door dealings and a lack of transparency.
Kelly said most of those who spoke “didn’t even understand what they were angry about.”
“How many times during that public comment did you hear, ‘We’re really mad. We don’t know why we’re mad, but we’re here expressing it,’” Kelly said. “You have to take into consideration that a lot of them didn’t know what they were doing, but they were doing it for a reason that wasn’t clear to anyone in the room.”
But Kelly knew that as a “volunteer, publicly elected official,” it was her duty to listen to each one of those 32 people.
The board then stepped into closed session — but it was apparently another half hour before the closed session began.
Communications obtained in January through a Record-Eagle Freedom of Information Act request showed a confidentiality and non-disparagement agreement was sent from TCAPS legal counsel to TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar.
Moon Mohr said in January that trustees were told they must sign the agreement before board business would continue in the closed session.
Kelly called such agreements standard operating procedure. Interviews with former trustees clashed with Kelly’s claim.
Despite the talking points and now silence from the board, Baldwin’s suspicions have not waned.
The puzzle is missing big pieces, he said.
What is known is that Cardon did not formally sign a separation agreement until Oct. 15, and the board did not ratify it until Oct. 17. Kelly publicly maintained in the week before the board approved the agreement with Cardon that she knew nothing about the superintendent’s incoming resignation.
During an Oct. 10 interview with the Record-Eagle, Kelly replied “no comment” when asked if a separation agreement was being brokered at the time.
Text messages between the board president and Cardon tell a different story — that Cardon informed district officials of her intent to leave as early as Oct. 9. Kelly also said in January that attorneys for both Cardon and the district began working on the separation agreement that day.
“If she did something wrong, it would’ve just been, ‘Bye. See ya later.’ She wouldn’t have gotten a penny,” Baldwin said. “And we’d absolutely know if it was her fault. They’re hiding behind this request for privacy and those closed meetings. They used it as a crutch to hide whatever they did to get rid of her.”
Kelly, who acts as the formal voice of the board, declined to speak about Cardon’s exit, citing the pending litigation from the Record-Eagle (see related story).
But she did reflect on those days in mid-October and said some things in the past had been “done poorly.”
“There has been substantial damage — emotionally, structurally, financially — that should never have happened. That’s tragic,” Kelly said. “Sometimes we can’t stand on what we think should be done and have to instead do what’s best for the district.”
She said she believes the board has done that.
Others, like Justin Van Rheenen, saw the board’s conduct as the basis for a recall effort.
Van Rheenen is the co-founder of TCAPS Transparency, a community action group formed in the weeks following Cardon’s departure. Van Rheenen led petitions to oust three board members — Kelly, Matt Anderson and Pam Forton — citing their actions that led to the $180,000 payout to Cardon.
But the outbreak of COVID-19 made collecting signatures nearly impossible, Van Rheenen said, and his group never had a clear shot to at the necessary 11,700 signatures to put Kelly, Anderson and Forton on the ballot.
The measure failed.
“If we were looking at flipping the entire board in November, we could’ve had six new people on the board. It would have been crazy,” he said. “But even if we couldn’t, it would have shown our board that we’re going to step up when we need to step up.”
Now, with an election ahead and three board seats occupied by Jeff Leonhardt, Jane Klegman and Ben McGuire up for grabs, Van Rheenen believes now is the time to remove those who “want to keep everything where it is now.”
Van Rheenen said there is no middle ground, voters either support the status quo or want change.
“While that explanation may seem simple, it doesn’t make any sense to keep the board as it is,” Van Rheenen said.
Moon Mohr was apparently largely ostracized by other trustees after her Oct. 11 statement, in which she called for the resignations of Kelly, Klegman, Leonhardt and Forton.
An Oct. 13 email from Kelly sought to direct public conversation and blame for Cardon’s resignation toward Moon Mohr.
In the email, obtained by the Record-Eagle in November, Kelly told other trustees, “We need supporters out in the community talking about what this truly is: a political maneuver by EMM.” Kelly went on to say that Cardon “is likely of little to no ultimate importance” to Moon Mohr and that Moon Mohr’s revelations about the Oct. 7 closed session were only done as a means to an end to remove Kelly, Forton, Klegman and Leonhardt from the board.
Moon Mohr later suggested all of the trustees, including herself but save for McGuire who was appointed after Cardon resigned, step down and give the district and the community a clean slate unspoiled by controversy.
No one took Moon Mohr up on her offer.
Instead, trustees provided statements to the Michigan State Police, with many alleging Moon Mohr violated the Open Meetings Act. TCAPS legal counsel Jeffrey Butler interrupted Moon Mohr several times during her Oct. 11 statement and advised her that she was violating OMA.
Documents filed with the 13th Circuit Court this week included a largely unredacted MSP report and showed Nancy Mullet, also TCAPS legal counsel, filed the complaint against Moon Mohr. A special prosecutor declined to pursue any charges. Moon Mohr declined to comment about the MSP investigation, only to say that she felt confident her statement did not violate OMA.
“I remember walking out of the board room and my mom and dad being there and then just sobbing because of the high, high emotions,” she said. “It’s hard on so many levels. It didn’t need to get to that point.”
Moon Mohr also declined to comment about the revelation regarding Mullet.
Grant Parsons, a Traverse City attorney and outspoken critic of TCAPS, said the actions against Moon Mohr in the meeting and the MSP investigation were unacceptable.
“That was a heavy-handed, thuggish move to silence a voice of public dissent and public inquiry,” he said.
Yet Moon Mohr now sees the district moving in a positive direction under the leadership of new TCAPS Superintendent John VanWagoner. She said the board has been more transparent, having open discussions in meetings, asking questions and conducting business in “the way it should be handled — in the board room.”
The board has entered closed session just four times since Oct. 11, 2019, three of those to discuss student reinstatement and the other to review superintendent applications.
“I wish the entire situation with Ann would have been handled differently,” she said. “I wish that people were more transparent and open and had conversations that allowed for understanding. Clearly, that wasn’t happening.”
The Record-Eagle seeks to hold the board and Kelly to those transparency standards in a lawsuit filed in January.
The suit claims “willful and intentional” actions taken by both (the board and Kelly) in denying or delaying FOIA requests, misusing closed sessions, violating both FOIA and the Open Meetings Act.
Although 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer ordered TCAPS to release the complaint letter that Kelly wrote against Cardon, TCAPS legal counsel appealed the decision.
Parsons said he isn’t surprised TCAPS is using every legal tactic and procedure available to grind the process to a near halt. But TCAPS is simply delaying the inevitable, he said.
“What they’re doing is what all governmental ostriches do, which is stick their head in the sand, follow their legal advice and hope it goes away,” he said. “That’s a real shame.”
Van Rheenen said he believes the majority of the TCAPS board is only beholden to voters when they have something to gain, when they can treat taxpayers like a piggy bank. When the community wants something from them, Van Rheenen said the board looks away. But the community continues to watch, he said.
“Right now, our current school board is hating the fact — I mean hating with a vitriol hatred — that they’re being watched,” he said.
Parsons, Van Rheenen and Baldwin remain hopeful their questions will be answered, they said.
“Unless something is done to continue the fight, we’ll never know what that is. Whatever it was will be swept under the rug,” Baldwin said. “I might not know what that is yet, but we’re going to find out.”
Cardon did not return calls for comment.