TRAVERSE CITY — Recall petitions against three Traverse City Area Public Schools trustees could be collateral damage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
TCAPS Board of Education members Matt Anderson, Pam Forton and President Sue Kelly face a recall in the wake of what some in the public believe their role was in the untimely departure of former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon.
Justin Van Rheenen is the sponsor on the recall petitions and a co-founder of TCAPS Transparency, a group formed in the weeks following Cardon’s resignation in October 2019 that cost taxpayers $180,000 in severance pay. He questions what the executive orders at both the state and federal level will do to their efforts.
“As far as optimism, I don’t know. I don’t really have a feel for it,” Van Rheenen said. “It’s not really optimistic or pessimistic. It’s just that this is our reality right now, and we have to deal with it day by day.”
The language on the petitions, which was approved Jan. 13 for Anderson and Forton and Feb. 3 for Kelly, is valid for 180 days. Petitioners have 60 days to collect 11,700 valid signatures and then submit those signatures by July 31 in order for a recall election to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Those signatures, however, need to be collected in writing and in person, which Van Rheenen said would be more than difficult during a time when residents are told to stay home and gatherings of 10 or more people are prohibited. Canvassing for signatures during a recall often take place at events with heavy pedestrian traffic or simply going door to door, which also is not advisable currently.
The risk of the spread of germs through touching the petition clipboards or pens could increase transmission of the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released recommendations for polling locations and advised regular cleaning and disinfecting of all instruments and surfaces.
Grand Traverse County Clerk Bonnie Scheele said it is still “business as usual” regarding the deadlines and timeframes for recall elections.
“Well, as far as I know, elections don’t stop, but I don’t know if they are even allowed to circulate the petitions,” Scheele said. “We’ve never had anything like this.”
Van Rheenen said the original plan was to begin collecting signatures May 15, but he feels the first week in June is probably the earliest he could see as a start date.
“Our numbers (of COVID-19 cases) are still going up exponentially in Michigan; and until we start seeing those coming down, there’s really nothing we can do to plan ahead,” Van Rheenen said. “We have ideas as far as what might happen later on, but let’s get through each individual step before we get ahead of ourselves.”
One of those ideas could be withdrawing the petitions and waiting the pandemic out. Scheele said Van Rheenen or someone else could always file another petition if and when the current petitions expire or are withdrawn.
Van Rheenen said he knows the petition language is solid, but he worries about losing momentum as the time between Cardon’s departure, the public outcry against the board and a possible recall election grows larger. He is also concerned if a recall movement is even wise during the first few months of a new superintendent’s tenure.
“Right now, our community is focused on the whole education side of things and everybody being at home and having kids at home and trying to support one another in our present situation,” Van Rheenen said.
The next step, Van Rheenen said, will be gathering input from community members on the approach they would like to see before a decision is made.
“Essentially, it’s the community that decides all of this,” he said, “and I want to make sure we hear from them.”
Anderson, Forton and Kelly did not return a call for comment.