TRAVERSE CITY — A closed session was the spark that ignited a nearly two-year saga surrounding the sudden and controversial resignation of a Traverse City Area Public Schools superintendent.
A unanimous vote in open session all but extinguished the fire — at least officially.
TCAPS Board of Education trustees voted 7-0 on Monday night to approve the terms of a settlement agreement in the Record-Eagle’s lawsuit against northern Michigan’s largest school district. Full details of the agreement have not yet been released. Further procedural steps must be taken before that information can be made public.
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However, the board did approve waiving certain attorney-client privilege information and the release of a document dated Oct. 11, 2019, which was the day the TCAPS board met again in closed session and amid word of Cardon’s possible exit.
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. Kelly remains a board trustee, although she is no longer president.
The Record-Eagle claimed there were “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.
TCAPS Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr is one of just three trustees who was on the board when Cardon resigned. Kelly and Board Treasurer Matt Anderson were the other two. Moon Mohr was vocal during public meetings and on social media about her opposition to the board’s actions before and after Cardon’s exit, including attaching the complaint letter to the closed-session minutes.
“I’m very thankful to the Record-Eagle for their pursuit in this. Just realizing how many things were misrepresented and not done correctly, none of this — if not for the Record-Eagle — would have been brought to light,” she said.
Poor leadership and poor advice created the situation, Moon Mohr said, citing legal counsel the board received from Clark-Hill Law Firm, which represented TCAPS at the time. Moon Mohr said those in positions of leadership within TCAPS, including Kelly, “turned a blind eye” to bad legal advice.
“I always questioned if I did the right thing. That weighs on you,” Moon Mohr said. “But I realized how much of it was so wrong.”
Some in the community, while happy about the settlement, remain upset about Kelly’s presence on the board.
The public firestorm following Cardon’s ousting led to recall efforts against three sitting board members — Kelly, Anderson and Pam Forton, who later resigned. Voters later unseated Jane Klegman and Jeff Leonhardt, who were also on the board when Cardon resigned and some felt bore responsibility for her departure.
Deyar Jamil, a Traverse City resident, often criticized the board and Kelly for their actions that resulted in Cardon’s resignation. Jamil said Kelly was “largely at fault” for all of it.
“Sue Kelly owes us an apology. She doesn’t get a pass,” Jamil said. “She shouldn’t be able to settle this without her own admission of guilt and some sort of liability.”
Kelly did not return requests for comment.
Anderson said the current board and administration as well as Superintendent John VanWagoner are ready to move on and move forward from the lawsuit.
Looking back, Anderson said the district was in a “time of crisis” during the Cardon dust up. He said he does not believe there was “ever any willful intention to break any rules or FOIA or OMA violations.”
“I don’t feel like that was anyone’s goal. It was to try and manage through a crisis situation,” he said. “Good people want to take responsibility for this and find out how to learn and grow from this — how to do better for TCAPS and this community.”