TRAVERSE CITY — Three seats. Seven candidates.
The run-up to the November election for the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education is likely to stir up community interest after a year filled with controversy in the district.
Three incumbents — Jane Klegman, Jeff Leonhardt and Ben McGuire — hope to retain their positions on the board for another four years. Josey Ballenger, Flournoy Humphreys, Michael Hurd and Scott Newman-Bale seek to supplant those three and provide fresh perspectives to the board.
Vice President Leonhardt and Klegman believe that their experience along with maintaining continuity on the board is vital as uncertainty about the future of public education rolls on and the new school year approaches.
Leonhardt, a TCAPS teacher who retired after 30 years, said bringing new people to the board could delay the necessary progress needed in a challenging time with many unknowns.
“I understand the district. I understand the people. I know what goes in a classroom. I know what goes on in schools. I know the budget. I know the capital projects,” he said. “I’ve really devoted a lot of time to this — not just to the duties of the board, but improving myself as a board member.”
Humphreys, also a retired TCAPS teacher, believes “fresh blood” is exactly what the community needs and deserves after a turbulent year that saw former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon resign after 78 days on the job, critical public comments, discord on the board and recall efforts against board members Sue Kelly, Matt Anderson and Pam Forton.
The June decision to discontinue the Great Start Readiness Program, a preschool service free to lower-income families, was just the latest move by the district that spurred criticism at trustees and executive team members.
Recent hires of John VanWagoner as superintendent and Shaina Biller as associate superintendent to replace Jame McCall are a good start, Humphreys said, adding that there is still “a long way to go.”
Humphreys said the board, as it is currently constructed, does not have her trust.
“They’re just not transparent. It seems shady. It seems like they do too many things behind closed doors,” she said. “The school board should be working for our community, and our community should know what’s going on. We need to work for our students, parents and staff. There should be no secrets.”
Leonhardt isn’t convinced the board lost the community’s trust.
“That’s not my sense,” he said. “I have a lot of friends that are teachers, and they haven’t conveyed to me that they’ve lost trust in my ability to serve the district.”
Ballenger and Newman-Bale were the first to put their names in the Harry Potter-esque Goblet of Fire, filing their candidacy in May. Ballenger said at the time that the race will come down to which candidates are the “most qualified and compelling” — be it incumbents or newcomers.
Newman-Bale calls himself a “consensus builder” and a “bridge builder,” two qualities he believes TCAPS is in sore need of. A dose of humility on the board would be a nice change of pace, he said.
The 2018 TCAPS board race was rather contentious at times.
A slate of candidates, calling themselves Team 5, ran on a platform challenging the status quo the board operated under and creating a more transparent district. Erica Moon Mohr was the only one of those five elected to the board.
McGuire, who was appointed to the board in October after Cardon’s resignation, expects the race will be contentious again. He said Ballenger, Newman-Bale and Humphreys are likely to “push themselves as a group” but will be more aggressive toward Klegman and Leonhardt.
“More choice is always good,” McGuire said. “School board elections typically are not a big deal. It’s often uncontested. The fact that it is so contested shows that there are some big disagreements over what the school board should be doing.”
Leonhardt said how contentious this race gets is up to the community.
“I don’t really have any control over that,” he said. “I didn’t make the last race contentious. I didn’t have anything to do with that. I certainly won’t have anything to do with it this time.”
Signs and placards with the names of the seven candidates will be spread around Traverse City as Nov. 3 nears, and voters will have a choice to make at the polls.
Humphreys said the goal is simply to help TCAPS be the great district it is.
“This town flat out deserves better,” she said.