TRAVERSE CITY — John VanWagoner comes on board during tumultuous times at Traverse City Area Public Schools.
The TCAPS Board of Education unanimously selected the current top administrator at Alpena Public Schools as the district’s next superintendent during a special board meeting Wednesday night.
The unanimous vote came on the heels of three board meetings and two public forums in the last six days as board members sprinted toward the finish line while clearing logistical hurdles thrown their way courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just as he has prepared for his candidacy during the last several months, VanWagoner will have to do the same for his superintendency at TCAPS — a position that comes with an expected wealth of responsibility but not often as many challenges that are present, right now.
Although VanWagoner’s official start date is July 1, given both sides reach agreement on a contract June 8, he likely will dip his toes in the TCAPS pool next month and work with interim Superintendent Jim Pavelka as he prepares for the transition.
He might find those waters a bit chilly, given the current climate surrounding TCAPS and an educational system — locally, statewide and nationally — affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts are predicting public education will face a major financial crisis because of the pandemic, and VanWagoner said the time is now to prepare for that inevitability.
“We have a serious financial emergency in our state that is going to take some real deep thought and support,” VanWagoner said. “We’ve got to do all we can as superintendents, as educators, as parents, as board members to make sure we’re advocating for everything we can for our kids in Traverse City.”
Board members pointed to VanWagoner’s strong financial acumen, his deep relationships with educators and legislators throughout Michigan, his passion for student-centered and social-emotional learning as well as his want to be in Traverse City for the long haul.
TCAPS Board President Sue Kelly said the district needs a superintendent to “pick up all the tools we’ve got, sort them out and start using them immediately with a tight grip on the handle so that student achievement continues to drive forward the fastest.”
Kelly believes VanWagoner is the right person for the job.
TCAPS community members will also look to VanWagoner to provide healing in the wake of former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s controversial departure in October. Cardon’s tenure lasted just 78 days, and her resignation lit a firestorm in the community that created major upheaval in the district as well as a recall effort against three sitting board members.
VanWagoner said he is aware of the issues — while not specifically — between Cardon, the board and some on the district’s executive team. He said now is a “new day” and that he does not come to TCAPS with any “preconceived notions or alliances.” His hope is to build a strong relationship with the board based on mutual respect and trust.
“I am my own man and have had my own experiences,” VanWagoner said. “I approach things the way that I approach them, and I feel very confident in that. I’m going to come in and make sure that I do everything I can to build trust with every board member, right away.”
Justin Van Rheenen, co-founder of TCAPS Transparency and the petitioner on the TCAPS recall efforts, said VanWagoner is a “great choice” and that he is hopeful the district can avoid the same outcome it had with Cardon seven months ago.
“As long as expectations are established immediately, everyone knows where they fit and the superintendent is allowed to actually have 100 days, I think we’ll be fine,” Van Rheenen said. “But they voted unanimously with Ann Cardon as well, so who really knows at this point. But I do think we have a winner here.”
Six of the seven trustees said in their comments that VanWagoner was their top choice, with only Erica Moon Mohr voicing support for Denise Herrmann over VanWagoner. Moon Mohr said, however, that VanWagoner is an excellent candidate and that the board “could not go wrong” with choosing either one.
Moon Mohr, who made the motion to select VanWagoner, called for cooperation and collaboration after the vote. She, too, hopes the board will avoid the same issues that plagued them with the previous administration.
“We can’t go through what we went through,” Moon Mohr said. “This is the time we come together and do the right thing for students.”
VanWagoner said he is ready to do those right things, although he admitted it will be bittersweet to leave Alpena.
“The good news is that we’ll be staying in the Big North Conference,” he said, adding that his rooting interests will change from the Wildcats to the Titans and Trojans. “I’m just ready to get to Traverse City and start this next phase.”