TRAVERSE CITY — A nearly 21-month legal battle could be drawing to a close.
Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education trustees are set to discuss terms of a settlement with Traverse City Record-Eagle regarding the newspaper’s lawsuit against the district. Board members will meet in closed session Monday and then have a discussion about the matter in open session, Board President Scott Newman-Bale said.
Newman-Bale said he is hoping to have a written agreement that provides closure, although he expects there to be some minor procedural steps to follow.
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“We’re getting nearer to the end where we can wrap up probably as much as we’ll be able to,” Newman-Bale said. “We’ve worked pretty hard, and it’s going to show.”
The Record-Eagle filed a civil suit against TCAPS in January 2020, alleging that TCAPS and former Board President Sue Kelly violated state transparency laws during the events that surrounded Ann Cardon’s resignation as superintendent in October 2019.
The Record-Eagle claimed TCAPS made “willful and intentional” violations of the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts to hide the reasons behind Cardon’s exit and that several board decisions were illegally made outside of an open session. The suit also claims FOIA requests were either inappropriately denied or delayed to prevent information regarding Cardon’s resignation from being made public.
A major part of the lawsuit was resolved in May when the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that TCAPS had to release a six-page complaint letter authored by Kelly and lobbed against Cardon. The decision declared the district improperly maneuvered to shield the document from disclosure by attaching it to closed-session meeting minutes and claiming it was protected by OMA.
The decision set a binding state precedent and struck down a possible loophole in Michigan’s transparency laws.
“As problematic as the process has been, I do believe it will lead to positive and longterm change that will benefit the district,” Newman-Bale said. “I’m sure we’re all looking forward to that.”
Newman-Bale made a very similar comment just a week after Cardon’s resignation at the first meeting of TCAPS Transparency, a group aimed at pushing reform on the TCAPS board and within the district.
“Now we have the momentum to make a change,” Newman-Bale said in late October 2019. “As painful as this process is going to be, hopefully in three to five years time, this is going to be the best thing that’s happened to us — and we’re going to turn it that way. We’re already turning the tide to bring it back together.”
Newman-Bale was close on his estimate. The matter could will be wrapped up in a little less than two years since the controversial exit of the three-month superintendent. Now, the district can focus on strategic planning for the future and continuing to work through the COVID-19 pandemic and its affect on the education system, Newman-Bale said.
“We’re clearing the slate, drawing a line and moving forward,” he said. “Hopefully the public appreciates the work that went into it.”
Many in the public, including Justin Van Rheenen, do appreciate TCAPS taking accountability for its actions.
“It’s definitely a win,” said Van Rheenen, a co-founder of TCAPS Transparency.
The first win, Van Rheenen said, came in November 2020 when voters flipped three seats on the TCAPS board and ousted trustees many felt bore some responsibility for Cardon’s resignation. Van Rheenen said the lawsuit would likely still be playing out if that had not happened.
“Settlements aren’t always an admission of guilt, but to have TCAPS admit responsibility — which I believe they’re expected to do — that’s going to go a long way with this community,” he said.
The TCAPS board meets at 6 p.m. Monday at the TCAPS administration building on 412 Webster Street.