TRAVERSE CITY — In a room of people seeking answers, little new information came to light about the controversy swirling around Traverse City Area Public Schools.
TCAPS Interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka headlined the first community forum put on by TCAPS Transparency, a group formed after the unexpected resignation of former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon 78 days into her tenure, at Northwestern Michigan College’s Scholars Hall on Wednesday.
Pavelka spent nearly an hour of the 90-minute session taking audience-submitted questions, ranging from board of education dysfunction and why Cardon left to allegations of district employees being bullied and how the next superintendent will be selected.
What those in the audience sought more than answers, however, was accountability for the recent failings in the district.
“All I can tell you is that I will do the best I can. I’m going to give this every bit of energy and knowledge I have,” Pavelka said. “Are there quick fixes? No. There’s no magic wand when you have problems like this.”
The reason for Cardon’s departure is not yet clear, but TCAPS trustee Erica Moon Mohr said the relationship between the former superintendent and others on the board became untenable after an Oct. 7 closed session in which a six-page complaint letter about Cardon authored by board President Sue Kelly was distributed. Others, including Kelly and board Treasurer Matt Anderson, said Cardon simply could not continue as superintendent amid the public outcry caused by Moon Mohr’s disclosure, which happened Oct. 11.
Communications received through a Freedom of Information Act request show Cardon informed Kelly of her intent to resign as early as Oct. 9. Kelly confirmed as much, but Cardon did not sign her official letter of resignation until Oct. 15. The board accepted the resignation at an Oct. 17 special meeting.
Pavelka said Wednesday he could not offer any insight into what happened because he does not know. Pavelka would like to put practices and safeguards in place to ensure something like this latest fiasco does not happen in TCAPS again.
Josey Ballenger, a recent finalist for an interim board seat, said hearing that assurance was her biggest takeaway of the night — but she agreed with Pavelka that such a move “will not be easy.” Ballenger also said Pavelka’s message regarding a zero-tolerance policy of bullying and intimidation within the district struck a chord with her.
“He’s headed in the right direction,” Ballenger said. “Communicating that sort of policy districtwide and to the greater public would go some way in restoring the public trust and helping us find a new superintendent.”
Most in the room Wednesday are concerned about what the search for a new superintendent will look like. Pavelka said officials from the Michigan Association of School Boards are coming to the Dec. 16 board meeting to provide “an overview and an in-service on the process” to find his replacement.
Pavelka said there is talk of hiring an outside firm to conduct a search for qualified candidates. He also shot down rumors of Grant Chandler’s involvement in the process and said that would not be the case.
Chandler is the author of MI Excel’s Blueprint, which is the strategic plan the TCAPS board adopted in January to improve student and teacher performance while determining where to allocate resources. Chandler was brought on as a consultant in the search to replace Paul Soma as superintendent — a search that concluded with Cardon’s hiring — and later resigned from MI Excel after an investigation into improper use of state funds.
TCAPS officials are considering a six-month, $30,000 contract with Our Students Matter, of which Chandler is president and CEO, in October to help with the installation of the Blueprint.
Pavelka said the best time to hire a superintendent would be January, but he doesn’t expect the board to name a new top administrator until at least April 1, 2020.
Patricia Henkel, who moderated the event Wednesday, said TCAPS Transparency will now turn its focus to the recall effort of Kelly, Anderson and trustee Pam Forton. She said a hearing is scheduled for Nov. 26 to either approve or disapprove the language in the recall petition.
Henkel called Pavelka’s appearance a “step in the right direction” and that he provided a dose of transparency she and others in the community have sought. She is also confident the answers to the questions being asked will be revealed.
“The sun will eventually shine on all of this,” she said. “It’ll just take some time and some money. We’ll get there, but I just wish we didn’t have to go this route to do it.”