Editor’s Note: An early, incorrect version of this story printed in Saturday’s paper. We regret this error and apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
TRAVERSE CITY — Accusations of Open Meetings Act violations.
Threats of recall petitions.
Impassioned pleas for transparency.
Heated calls for resignations.
Forceful support of a superintendent who didn’t attend.
One after another, 32 people stood at a podium during more than 90 minutes of public comment at a jam-packed and often raucous special meeting of the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education on Friday.
Most derided several board members, including President Sue Kelly, for what they believe to be those trustees’ role in the expected exit of TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon, who has been on the job just 72 days.
“What I’ve seen is a cancer, a cancer that has gone into some of the upper echelon of the administration and of the school board and of the union,” said retired TCAPS music teacher Pat Brumbaugh. “I’ve seen great people leave because they’re disgusted. You know who you are. This is a cancer in this school district.”
Cardon was the only of six superintendent candidates asked back for a fit-to-district interview after the original round of interviews earlier this year. Board trustees were enthusiastic about Cardon and unanimously approved hiring her 7-0. The trustees were confident in their choice, they gave her a three-year contract.
Cardon, who did not return multiple calls for comment, was notably absent from the meeting that many in the audience believe was set to determine her future at TCAPS. Kelly said Cardon was at a superintendents’ conference at Crystal Mountain and trying to make it back for the meeting, but Cardon’s nameplate was not put out before the meeting began. Kingsley Superintendent Keith Smith confirmed that Cardon had been at the conference Friday.
Kelly said Cardon remains the TCAPS superintendent, but she walked away from a Record-Eagle reporter when asked if the district would move forward with Cardon at the helm.
Grant Parsons accused Kelly of an OMA (Open Meetings Act) violation after trustee Erica Moon Mohr, in a letter distributed to all trustees and obtained by the Record-Eagle, said Kelly met with or called each trustee to discuss Cardon’s performance.
Those round-robin style discussions are largely forbidden under the Open Meetings Act — if one-on-one deliberations delve into any talk beyond a yes-or-no poll of vote counts, the discussions violate state law, according to Michigan Press Association General Counsel Robin Luce-Herrmann.
“What’s going on in TCAPS? The public is entitled to facts,” Parsons said. “We deserve answers — not silence.”
The vocal crowd of more than 100 people exploded after Kelly tried to silence Moon Mohr who read aloud a version of her letter. The audience erupted again when Kelly attempted to adjourn the meeting without hearing public comment.
Moon Mohr came out strong against four fellow board members — Kelly, Pam Forton, Jane Klegman and Jeff Leonhardt — saying she was “disgusted” with their behavior during a closed session portion of a board meeting Monday and called their comments an “assault on Ann.” She also called for Kelly and Klegman to resign.
Kelly and TCAPS legal counsel Jeff Butler warned Moon Mohr several times as she read her statement. The board leader and district lawyer told Moon Mohr she was either violating or in danger of violating the closed session confidentiality protected by the OMA. Butler said a city police officer was in the room, but it was not clear if his presence was a threat to Mohr or to keep the crowd in check.
Moon Mohr said earlier Friday that an attorney threatened her with a misdemeanor Thursday night if she revealed what happened in a Monday night closed session.
Intentional violation of OMA can yield a misdemeanor charge with a maximum penalty of $1,000 and up to $500 in civil fines. If a board or board member continues acting outside of compliance, the state attorney general or county prosecutor can step in and force compliance through legal action.
Thomas Grigal called the board’s habit of going into closed session “disingenuous, duplicitous, deceptive” and said Friday was the first time he has not been able to figure out what’s going on in TCAPS.
“As far as Ann goes, you don’t deserve her,” Grigal said. “Your legacy is now fraudulent. Your background is now tainted. … The only hope you have is to beg her to stay.”
Five of the six board members present — outgoing Vice President Doris Ellery was absent — ignored the crowd’s plea to remain transparent and move the closed session portion of the agenda to an open session. Moon Mohr made the motion to stay in open session, but trustee Matt Anderson, who was the only likely candidate to support the motion, agreed the matter should be discussed behind closed doors and away from the public’s eyes and ears.
Shouts of “cowards” followed as the trustees left their seats and moved to a different room where they presumably discussed matters pertaining to “privileged attorney client communication,” according to the agenda. Several people in the crowd promised to begin recall campaigns to remove board members from their seats. Others flat out demanded their resignations.
Moon Mohr said earlier Friday she believed the closed session Friday was to discuss a separation agreement with Cardon. Matt Anderson said he wasn’t sure if it was to discuss a separation agreement, a resignation or some other matter.
The board returned to open session and took no action after more than an hour and a half of closed-door discussion. Kelly spoke to the audience, which had largely dissipated, and once again warned against speaking about matters discussed in a closed session.
Moon Mohr declined to comment further on her accusations.
It’s still unclear whether Cardon will remain with the district. It’s also unclear whether the voices of the 32 people who spoke in support of keeping Cardon will sway board members.
When asked when parents, students and the community can expect clarification on Cardon’s status with the district, Kelly said she hopes to provide those answers “as soon as possible.”
“We’re desperately working on it,” she said.