TRAVERSE CITY — Applause and cheers rang out in the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education room last year around this time.
The decision to build a new TCAPS Montessori school along 14th Street and Pine Street — unanimously approved on Feb. 11, 2019 — came with excitement and the promise of a new day for Montessori students and staff.
Now, almost a year to the date later, the decision to move construction of the new school to Franke Road was met with a mass exit of disappointed and frustrated parents and community members from that same board room.
TCAPS trustees — in a unanimous vote once again — approved the move Monday night after nearly 40 minutes of public comment and a lengthy discussion among themselves, interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka and Associate Superintendent Christine Thomas-Hill.
All shared the same sentiment that it was “a very difficult decision,” but one that had to be made.
“Now is the time to make a decision,” Board President Sue Kelly said, as rumblings of dissent were heard in the audience.
The original plans for the site near Thirlby Field were derailed when it became clear Traverse City officials could not legally vacate Griffin Street, a move that was needed to ensure the school could be built as planned.
Parents voiced concerns about moving the school outside of the neighborhood setting and making it less walkable and bikeable. Others raised issues regarding what environmental impact building near the wetlands and Kids Creek would have on the water quality and continued runoff.
Many asked the board to consider going back to the city or at least bring options to the city commission for a vote, which was an option City Planning Director Russ Soyring mentioned at a Montessori PTO meeting in late January.
“I just wanted to implore you to find a way to continue working with the city to keep the school in town,” Tyler Nash, parent of a Montessori student, said. “Neighborhood schools are one of the few things we still have and one of the few things that still bring people together. ... That’s vitally important to democracy — and vitally important to our town, our community, our kids.”
Pavelka assured the audience and the board that TCAPS is committed to neighborhood schools and “keeping kids in the city.”
Cari Noga, also a Montessori parent, was one of just two people to speak in favor of the Franke Road site, but her message to the board came with cautionary warning. Noga, who was part of the original Montessori visioning group, said recent events in TCAPS, including the “manufactured” departure of former Superintendent Ann Cardon, distracted district officials from properly handling the process of building a new Montessori school.
“I know many parents feel the city is being scapegoated for their stance on Griffin Street, and I can’t say their sentiment is wrong,” Noga said. “Now, concerns have been raised about Franke and the neighboring wetlands. Maybe that will turn out fine, but what I know is that a year ago, 14th and Pine was approved. ... Who knows what the next year will bring?”
Trustee Matt Anderson questioned if there were “any circumstances” in which the city could revive talks of 14th and Pine. Pavelka did not seem confident, although he complimented the city staff for their cooperation in the process.
“There is no way that I have been able to find to build a Montessori school on that site, have room for expansion, have classroom sizes we need and all of the other ancillary parts that Montessori needs,” Pavelka said. “I don’t know what the city council would vote on.”
Board members Pam Forton and Jeff Leonhardt, who are part of the Montessori task force along with committee chair Erica Moon Mohr, said building at Franke Road allows the district to build a school that fits the true vision of Montessori education, where teachers and staff allow for a communal and familial learning atmosphere in which students and teachers collaborate on instruction.
Classroom size became a major sticking point in October, according to Thomas-Hill, when it was discovered the site at 14th and Pine could only fit classrooms that were more than 300 square feet smaller than those that could be built at Franke Road. Both Thomas-Hill and Montesorri Principal Lisa Van Loo said larger classrooms were a high priority for staff and integral for teaching in an Montessori environment.
With the site now determined, district officials can move onto schematic design with the input of Montessori staff. One hurdle they will have to overcome is quelling that disappointment and frustration on display Monday night. Van Loo said she has a lot of faith in her Montessori families.
“I’m grateful for their voice of advocacy,” Van Loo said. “But I really think our board summed up the collective voice I’ve heard, and that is to build a Montessori school built for Montessori. The facility is more important than the location.”
That facility is slated to open in July 2022.