That is the biggest issue facing Traverse City Area Public Schools — at least according to the nearly 1,200 people who filled out an online survey and the many more who provided feedback at open forums, focus groups and in-person interviews.

Jim Morse presented the results of that survey and those discussions along with a recommended candidate profile for TCAPS’ top administrator to the board of education Monday. Morse is a representative of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, the firm hired to lead the search for a new superintendent.

The top challenge facing the district, as identified by the respondents, was the current political climate surrounding the board and its role in the sudden resignation of former Superintendent Ann Cardon, who left with a $180,000 payout after just 78 days.

Some in the community, especially those affiliated with the group TCAPS Transparency, have spoken out against the board’s actions and a perceived lack of transparency from district officials. Those seeking clarity on why a superintendent hired unanimously would suddenly resign have felt they must rely on rumors and conjecture without a clear answer from the board, which has sought to protect Cardon’s privacy.

Three board members — Sue Kelly, Pam Forton and Matt Anderson — are facing recall petitions. Trustee Erica Moon Mohr has been the board member at the epicenter of the revelations regarding Cardon, and some in the public — and others on the board — have been critical of her actions leading up to and following Cardon’s resignation.

Ian Ashton, co-founder of TCAPS Transparency, said he was concerned that trustees do not appreciate the continued “fallout” from Cardon’s resignation and that certain candidates might not even “entertain the possibility of interviewing with this board” because of it.

“There’s a lot of smiles and joking about really serious topics, and it makes me kind of uncomfortable,” Ashton said. “They’re not taking it as seriously as they should, and that’s a little disheartening.”

Of the 1,993 people who completed the survey, more than half of those respondents (53 percent) were parents of students. Community members made up the second largest group at 21.8 percent, followed by teachers at 13.5 percent.

The top-rated characteristics respondents sought in a new superintendent included fostering a positive and professional climate, being transparent, managing the long-term financial health of TCAPS, being visible and actively engaged in the community, and understanding educational research and best practices. Descriptions used in the profile included “trust builder, collaborator, positive, courageous, bridge builder, open to criticism, thick skinned, servant leader” and others.

Trustee Ben McGuire said it was possible to create a successful candidate from “any combination of those traits.”

“We’re going to take this, and this is going to be what we build our interviews around. We’re focusing on these particular issues more than others, it’s our way of discerning what we feel is the best candidate for our district,” he said.

Ashton appreciated the search firm listening to the community.

“The top five that they listed were five that I would put in that same order,” he said. “Those are traits we haven’t seen in the district yet, and I think they’re what we need.”

Trustee Jane Klegman asked if there was anything “off-putting” in the profile, and Morse referred back to the strife in the district.

“Because of the publicity you’ve had in your district, any candidate will be interviewing you or researching you as closely as you research that person — so they would have some concerns,” Morse said. “Experienced superintendents know that every district has its challenges.”

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