TRAVERSE CITY — Two wedges appear to have driven the split between a former board president and a former superintendent of northern Michigan’s largest school district.
Revelations from a six-page document written in October 2019 detailed complaints then-Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education President Sue Kelly had against then-TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon.
The letter, which was released to the public Tuesday morning after a 20-month legal battle between the Record-Eagle and TCAPS, showed Kelly and Cardon differed on the assertions from a study on school funding and a “strategic plan” TCAPS formally adopted months before the superintendent’s hire.
The School Finance Research Collaborative’s 2019 study called for the state to fund all school districts at the same per-pupil figure of $9,590. The study also showed additional money should be given to districts per pupil based on weighted formulas.
TCAPS, which was led by retiring Superintendent Paul Soma at the time, and the board, publicly rebuked the study’s findings.
In May 2019, TCAPS trustees unanimously supported a resolution against the study that said the SFRC “misstates and minimizes the inequity that exists in public education.”
The six superintendent candidates vying to replace Soma, including Cardon, were asked about their stance on the SFRC during board interviews five days later. Cardon expressed her support for the study and the findings, yet TCAPS trustees agreed the following Monday to bring back only Cardon for a second interview, effectively naming her the next superintendent.
Former TCAPS trustee Jane Klegman said after Cardon’s unofficial appointment as top administrator that Cardon “understands the direction TCAPS wants to go in, and I think she is very interested in taking us there.”
“She accepted our position (on the SFRC) at that time. She was specifically asked if that was going to be a problem, and she told us no,” Klegman said Tuesday after reading the letter for the first time since the Oct. 7, 2019, closed session at which it was presented.
Although the board expected Cardon to change her tune on the SFRC, the newly installed superintendent did anything but. Cardon publicly supported the SFRC findings at a gathering of the state’s superintendents. Video of her comments were broadcast on TV.
“It wasn’t so much the SFRC as it was the fact that, knowing how the board felt about it, she was publicly saying that we were going to accept the SFRC — that she was lying,” Klegman said. “We never said we would accept the SFRC.”
Kelly, in the complaint, said Cardon’s public support of the SFRC and a weighted formula for per-student funding was a “flagrant and intentional insult.”
The letter indicates the issue deteriorated the relationship between Kelly and Cardon, prompting Kelly to tell Cardon on Sept. 24, 2019, that “if we can’t get past this difference of opinions we will have to agree to separate.”
Klegman said the differences were a “significant issue.”
“Did she lose her job because of her position on the SFRC? No. That is not why she resigned,” Klegman said. “If she wasn’t willing or able to make those changes, then — it seemed to me — that she felt her only option was to leave.”
In a tense moment at a September 2019 board meeting, Cardon used the word “we” when expressing support for the SFRC. Kelly cut Cardon off and asked her to whom “we” referred. Cardon responded and said she meant the state superintendents.
Cardon’s statement was true, as TCAPS was the only K12 district in the state to not support the SFRC.
“Seven board members signed a statement not supporting the SFRC. Superintendent Cardon was told that multiple times, agreed to that and knew it was something she had to understand,” Klegman said.
Tim Quinn, a Traverse City resident, was part of the SFRC study. He called the TCAPS resolution against it a “ridiculous posture.”
“They were very proud of it because, by god, they were going to stick to their facts — which were alternative facts to what the SFRC concluded and the rest of the board and superintendents in the state concluded,” said Quinn, who worked with school boards and superintendents in his time at the Michigan Leadership Institute, the Michigan SUPES Academy and the Broad Center for Superintendents.
In the complaint letter, Kelly also expressed concerns about Cardon’s ability to lead the installation of the Blueprint, a systems resource the district used for four years before formally adopting in January 2019. Her doubts led Kelly to lean on Associate Superintendent Jame McCall, who has since retired.
McCall and Cardon seemed to have gotten off to a difficult start, according to TCAPS Vice President Erica Moon Mohr, and Kelly’s letter stated McCall was preparing to retire.
Instead, Cardon agreed to work with McCall on adjustments to her contract that would address the Blueprint. The agreed-upon addendum to McCall’s contract was dated Oct. 6, the day before the now-infamous closed session. It was approved on Oct. 8 by Cardon and it included board of education support for a six-month, $30,000 contract with Our Students Matter to help with districtwide installation of the Blueprint.
Our Students Matter was a organization created and run by Grant Chandler. Chandler, during his time with the Michigan Department of Education’s MI Excel program, was instrumental in bringing the Blueprint to TCAPS.
However, during the summer of 2019, the MDE investigated Chandler and conducted a financial review that questioned “the propriety of MI Excel expenditures of federal funds to support the Blueprint work.” Chandler worked for Calhoun Intermediate School District at the time, and MDE officials advised Calhoun ISD to suspend MI Excel services to 10 districts.
TCAPS, Kelly and McCall continued to work with Chandler despite the investigation and Chandler’s eventual termination.
Kelly said at the time that the Blueprint was “being very effective in some buildings” but that creating that “districtwide is going to be instrumental.”
Some educators contend the Blueprint wasn’t much of anything.
Quinn said Kelly was “hung up on the Blueprint and the flawed premise” that it was a “strategic plan.”
“The Blueprint is not a strategic plan. The Blueprint is a systems map. The Blueprint has no goals, no metrics, no accountability structures. There was nothing there,” Quinn said. “Most people, most educators around the state, who’ve heard about the Blueprint understand it’s (BS).”
Kelly’s assertions in the complaint letter indicate that Kelly believed Cardon was not a supporter of the Blueprint nor the district’s continued relationship with Chandler. According to the letter, Cardon pulled the call records from McCall’s district phone to see if she had been in contact with Chandler, which McCall had. That created further strife between Cardon and Kelly.
Moon Mohr said she was not aware of any of these issues heading into the Oct. 7 closed session. She was also unaware the complaint they were going to hear was against Cardon.
Moon Mohr continually questioned the Blueprint, its purpose and how it was shown to be effective. Her public inquiry into the Blueprint caused some tension on the board during meetings, including Cardon’s first board retreat in August 2019, when other trustees told Moon Mohr she simply did not understand what the Blueprint was.
“I was like, ‘OK. I’m not an educator, and maybe this is in educator language that I’m not understanding,’” Moon Mohr said. “But then I talked to teachers and principals, and they all told me that the Blueprint was not what they were saying it was.”
TCAPS has since shifted away from the Blueprint after John VanWagoner took over as superintendent nearly a year ago.
The district now employs the Michigan Integrated Continuous Improvement Process (MICIP), which the MDE supports. The program helps districts assess the “whole child,” a movement that has picked up steam since the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need for educators to focus on a student’s social and emotional well-being as well as their academic performance.
Although the Blueprint is mentioned from time to time at the board curriculum meetings, Moon Mohr said they have moved on from it.
She hopes the release of the complaint letter will help the district and the community move on from a rocky chapter in the TCAPS history books.
“It’s time,” she said. “We have much more ahead of us that we can look forward to.”