TRAVERSE CITY — Exactly 20 months ago, Ann Cardon signed a separation agreement that would effectively end her short tenure as superintendent of northern Michigan’s largest school district and pay her $180,000 to resign.
The Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education did not formally ratify that agreement and the substantial payout until two days later on Oct. 17, 2019. Despite the end of the relationship, the controversy surrounding Cardon’s unexpected departure was in its early stages.
Some form of closure to the ordeal arrived in the first minutes of Tuesday when TCAPS board trustees voted 6-0 to release a complaint letter levied against Cardon that was at the center of public uproar and a lawsuit the Record-Eagle brought against the district and then-Board President Sue Kelly. Kelly — who authored the complaint letter and distributed it for the Oct. 7, 2019, closed session — was absent from the meeting Monday. Nonetheless, TCAPS Board President Scott Newman-Bale said she was supportive of the board’s decision.
Trustees met in closed session for 51 minutes late Monday night before returning to Conference Room C at the TCAPS administration building. The unanimous vote came a minute after midnight and near the end of the six-hour marathon meeting.
Newman-Bale said the timing was appropriate and symbolic as the board’s decision signaled a “new day” at TCAPS.
“It’s been a challenge, but not for any lack of will,” Newman-Bale said. “We’re excited to finally get to this point. It’s been a long road.”
Newman-Bale expects the letter to be released to the Record-Eagle on Tuesday. The board approved directing TCAPS attorney Greg Mair to send the letter to the Record-Eagle’s lawyer. Newman-Bale said he will call Mair on Tuesday morning with that directive.
The first court-order commanding the district release the letter came nearly 11 months ago in July 2020 from 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer, but an appeal filed by TCAPS slowed the process.
Not until after May 13, when a Michigan Court of Appeals panel unanimously ruled the letter must be made public, did the district and its legal counsel begin the process of releasing the document that stirred up so much fervor within the TCAPS community.
Although TCAPS could have appealed the appellate court’s ruling, the board also voted unanimously during the meeting not to take that legal route and instead put an end to at least one part of the lawsuit.
Board Vice President Erica Moon Mohr, who fought for release of the letter since it was presented to the board for a closed session on Oct. 7, 2019, said the focus now is on moving forward.
“Unfortunately this took a long time, but it’s the right decision,” Moon Mohr said.
On Oct. 10, 2019, the Record-Eagle submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the complaint letter. TCAPS denied both the request and the subsequent appeals for the document.
The Record-Eagle, in January 2020, filed a lawsuit in response to the denials and alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act and FOIA. Both Elsenheimer and the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Record-Eagle and said TCAPS inappropriately claimed an OMA exemption allowed district officials to shield the letter from FOIA requests without a court order to release it.
The Appeals Court decision set a binding state precedent and closed a potential loophole that would have given cover to public governing bodies statewide to conceal records that otherwise would be subject to FOIA.
“This is an important milestone in our community’s understanding of how our elected officials conduct themselves,” said Record-Eagle Executive Editor Nate Payne. “Unfortunately, parents, teachers and local taxpayers had to wait 20 months and perform legal backflips for a glimpse of what we knew was a public record from the outset.”
Much of the letter’s contents likely won’t be a surprise to many who followed the incendiary discussion surrounding Cardon’s departure in the fall of 2019.
Emails obtained by the Record-Eagle through other FOIA requests indicate some district officials were upset Cardon, who was less than three months into her tenure, had not yet met with the teachers union leaders. Problems existed between Cardon and former trustees Jane Klegman, Jeff Leonhardt and Pam Forton stemming from complaints about the superintendent’s communication skills. Cardon also supported findings on school funding equity from the School Finance Research Collaborative that the TCAPS board publicly repudiated.
Former TCAPS trustee Bill Smith addressed the board ahead of the “imminent release” of the complaint letter. Smith expressed his gratitude to the staff, volunteers and board members who “treated that whole affair with compassion and integrity, regardless of where they came down on the issue.”
“I assume there’ll be a number of revelations coming out about how we took a unanimously accepted superintendency and so quickly collapsed and degenerated into a very destructive time,” Smith said. “The important thing is to study this, to learn how to prevent the enormous destruction that happened. It’s not a time to name heroes or villains.”
The Record-Eagle will publish the complaint letter once it has been released.