TRAVERSE CITY — The competition for the top job at Traverse City Area Public Schools turned a corner Saturday.

Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education trustees spent nearly eight hours interviewing five semifinalist candidates for the district’s superintendent job, doing so virtually as to adhere to guidelines set forth by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The morning began with an announcement that one of the five original candidates, Mark Daniel, dropped out after he was offered the top job at a school district in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jim Morse, who led the TCAPS superintendent search for Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, provided board members with another option, Denise Herrmann, to interview in Daniel’s place.

Herrmann is the superintendent Roseville Junior Union High School District in California, where she runs a school system roughly the size of TCAPS with 10,500 students, 950 employees, nine schools and a $150 million budget. Herrmann spent time as the associate superintendent for Fremont Unified School District, which served 35,000 K-12 students.

Only one public comment was offered during the meeting. Fern Spence, who began an online petition to show community support against the board’s possible hire of internal candidate and current TCAPS Associate Superintendent Jame McCall, took the opportunity to weigh in. More than 500 people signed the petition, Spence said, adding that McCall has been part of the district’s “nontransparent behavior.”

McCall has been the target of criticism in the wake of former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon’s unexpected departure in October, with some claiming McCall was partly responsible for Cardon leaving.

Spence’s comment did not stop trustees from interviewing McCall, who was third in the lineup Saturday. McCall indirectly addressed the situation during her interview, saying it takes “more than a thick skin to be a leader at TCAPS.”

Board members began with Dina Rocheleau, the assistant superintendent at Ferndale Public Schools, who has more than 30 years experience in education. Rocheleau said the current administrators she oversees would describe hers as a “warm demander,” someone who has heart and passion but holds people accountable.

Rocheleau said she’s worked to establish trust at Ferndale while using a systems-based approach across the district that she feels is similar to the Blueprint — the systems-based approach TCAPS uses. She said the process helps the district keep a “mindset of purpose over power.”

“It really provides this immunity that we’re all in this together and that we’re all on the same page,” Rocheleau said.

The morning slate of interviews continued with John VanWagoner, the superintendent of Alpena Public Schools.

VanWagoner began his career in education at the state level with the Michigan Department of Education, where he eventually rose to the level of legislative director. He then moved on to an associate superintendent at an intermediate school district. Those leadership roles, VanWagoner said, give him relationships already built that he can lean on to help lead his district.

VanWagoner said his experience as a “sitting superintendent at a northern Michigan school district” provides him a familiarity with the area and state, pointing to his collaborative work with former TCAPS Superintendent Paul Soma and current interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka.

“That matters,” he said. “In northern Michigan, you (TCAPS) don’t have a lot of alike districts. In fact, you have no alike districts. We’re as close as there is in Alpena.”

VanWagoner said that Alpena, like TCAPS, is funded at the lowest base level per-pupil allowance and that many of the “serious inequities” in Michigan education have to be addressed. That call for equitable funding is one TCAPS has echoed for several years.

McCall closed out the morning interviews, which turned emotional for McCall when asked about her failures as an administrator.

She recounted to the struggles between the district’s principals and the district’s executive team, including Soma, that led to two separate investigations into accusations of bullying, harassment and intimidation by Soma and other executives.

McCall tried to hold back tears as she admitted to not recognizing the issues before they became a problem and then not presenting to the principals that she could have solved the problem.

“We let our adult issues get in the way of what we were offering kids,” she said, promising she will not make that failure again.

The afternoon session started with Herrmann, who also spoke highly of systems-based approaches to education, including the Blueprint. Herrmann, without specifically naming Cardon, addressed what she called “a personnel issue” and said the “No. 1 skill” during that type of disruption is “transparent communication.”

“The tip of the iceberg is all that is on the surface, and there is a lot more that goes on underneath the surface of the water,” Herrmann said, adding that she wants to learn what led up to that change in leadership and what lessons can be taken from it.

The day concluded with Rosalie Daca, the chief academic officer at Racine Unified School District in Wisconsin. Daca has 34 years experience in education, which she said taught her that shared leadership is the best way to run a district.

Daca said the board’s job is not to agree with her 100 percent of the time nor is it to micromanage her performance. Daca said the board’s job is to govern and provide a “candid and honest” evaluation of her performance.

She spoke highly of transparency and honesty, saying that adult issues need to be put aside to work together.

“I believe in public support and private criticism,” Daca said. “We need to show a united front as a team moving forward to do the work.”

Trustees will discuss the semifinalist interviews and select the final two candidates for a fit-to-district interview during the next board meeting Monday at 6 p.m.

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