TRAVERSE CITY — The six-page letter lobbying a complaint against former Traverse City Area Public Schools Superintendent Ann Cardon remains hidden from public eyes.
TCAPS Board of Education trustees voted 5-1 Monday to deny the appeal of one Freedom of Information Act records request from the Record-Eagle while granting in part another and granting in full a third. The Board denied a similar request for the complaint letter from the Traverse Ticker.
Trustee Erica Moon Mohr was the lone “no” vote and spoke in favor of releasing the complaint letter, which was distributed in closed session at the Oct. 7 meeting of the full Board.
TCAPS Executive Director of Communications Christine Guitar said in her response to a Record-Eagle request for a copy of the complaint letter that the request was denied per Section 13(1)(d) of the FOIA — records or information specifically described and exempted from disclosure by statute — and Section 7(2) of the Open Meetings Act.
Jennifer Dukarski, Michigan Press Association deputy general counsel, said previously Section 7(2) of the OMA applies only to the meeting minutes of a closed session.
Nancy Mullet, TCAPS legal counsel, said the minutes of a closed session “cannot be disclosed absent a court order,” according to the closed session statute of the OMA. Mullet cited an additional statute of the OMA which states the district would be susceptible to legal action, both criminal and civil, if those minutes were disclosed to the public without a court order.
“I cannot advise anybody on the Board to break the law and disclose that,” Mullet said.
Questions arose regarding what is included in the meeting minutes and if the complaint letter is subject to such inclusion. Mullet said the law “provides the minimum of what the minutes must include.”
“There is no maximum,” she said.
Newly appointed Trustee Ben McGuire said the Board has to respect the confidentiality for which an employee asks and the law guarantees.
“It does damage to a board to then release that information,” he said. “We have to consider that when looking for a new superintendent who may find himself in the same shoes for completely different reasons.”
The upheld portion of the second denial also involved the complaint against Cardon. The Record-Eagle sought Cardon’s personnel file, including any complaints. TCAPS Board President Sue Kelly said in her denial letter that the district reaffirms that “no complaint is contained in Ann Cardon’s personnel file.”
Moon Mohr questioned why the complaint letter was not in Cardon’s file, and Kelly responded only that it is protected by closed session.
Michigan’s Supreme Court sets standards that, as a general rule, documents related to a public school employee’s job performance do not fall under FOIA’s privacy exemptions.
However, a portion of Cardon’s separation agreement — which netted her $180,000 — states that any pending “grievances, complaints, lawsuits, or charges of any kind filed with any forum, if any, related to the Superintendent, shall be deemed withdrawn.” An August 1980 opinion from the Michigan attorney general allows dismissed complaints to be suppressed or expunged only if they’re determined to have been unfounded.
The granted appeals uncovered communications between Cardon and Kelly days after the now-infamous Oct. 7 closed session and days before Cardon officially tendered her resignation Oct. 15.
Just after 1 p.m. on Oct. 11 — two hours before a special meeting that generated more than 90 minutes of heated public comment about the possible departure of Cardon — Kelly sent a text to Cardon seeking approval for a “mutual statement” regarding Cardon leaving TCAPS.
“We entered into our work together in good faith with high aspirations,” a portion of the text reads. “However, it’s clear that due to philosophical differences we are mutually agreeing to separate.”
Cardon sent a text 30 minutes later and said she wasn’t comfortable making a statement at the time and that a message can be crafted when there is a signed separation agreement with Board approval.
Kelly said Monday night the “philosophical differences” were “nothing in particular.”
“Very large, in general,” Kelly said. “It’s just in general, philosophical. I’m not going to be any more specific than that.”
The group TCAPS Transparency had representatives at the meeting Monday. Justin Van Rheenen said “two out of four isn’t bad,” referring to the Board’s decisions on the appeals.
“I would have preferred to have that six-page document to be able to see what it is that led to this entire debacle,” he said. “But getting all communications unredacted is one step toward transparency, which is what we’ve pushed for and continue to push for.”