TRAVERSE CITY — John VanWagoner dipped his toes into the waters of Traverse City Area Public Schools the last few weeks.
The new superintendent of northern Michigan’s largest school district officially takes over the helm of the ship Wednesday, but he’s already got a feel for the place he and others hope he’ll call home for at least the next three years — the length of his contract.
VanWagoner already spent time going to board committee meetings, talking with staff, visiting the district’s 16 schools, checking out the fleet of 105 buses and getting settled in before the role of top administrator is all his.
Seeing “the depth of quality within TCAPS” has been a joy, said the soon-to-be former superintendent of Alpena Public Schools.
“There are some things that feel real comfortable to me that are similar to Alpena, and there are other things that I recognize the much larger scope,” he said. “It’s been nice to be a tourist in my new town.”
VanWagoner faces a wealth of challenges in his new role as he works to move from tourist to TCAPS expert.
Aside from the national and statewide issues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic that are affecting every school district — funding uncertainty, planning to return safely to school in the fall — VanWagoner walks into a district with its own set of controversies.
A ruling on the pending lawsuit from the Record-Eagle against the district and TCAPS Board of Education President Sue Kelly on allegations of violating the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act could come as early as July 27. The ongoing, but now stalled, recall efforts against three board trustees stretch on. The decision to eliminate a state-funded preschool program offered free to lower-income families kicked up a cloud of criticism.
Then, of course, there is the 78-day elephant in the room — former TCAPS Superintendent Ann Cardon’s unexpected resignation last October, which spurred the Record-Eagle lawsuit, the recall efforts and a fiery public backlash against a board many lampooned for operating behind closed doors.
But VanWagoner does not see himself playing the role of “healer” as superintendent.
“More of a relationship builder,” he said. “The best way we’re going to solve that is with everyone in the community putting our kids’ interests first and foremost in every decision we make.”
TCAPS trustee Erica Moon Mohr, who was ostracized by other board members after her public comments slamming the “unfair” and “ugly” treatment of Cardon, hopes VanWagoner comes in “very open-minded and takes the time to listen to each board member.”
Moon Mohr said she wants to move on from the Cardon controversy and move forward building a district geared toward providing for the whole child.
But, if she or other trustees have an issue with VanWagoner, she hopes they pick up the phone or sit down to hash out what is working and what might not be working, instead of “presenting a complaint letter 60 days in.”
“I hope that’s the lesson we learned,” she said. “I don’t want to see him set up to fail, and I hope he is tough as nails, has super thick skin, and can handle some of the undercurrents going on between board members and central office.”
Some doubt still exists in the community as to whether or not board trustees will allow VanWagoner to do the job he was hired to do in the manner he sees fit.
Justin Van Rheenen, co-founder of TCAPS Transparency and a sponsor on recall efforts, said he hopes a mutual trust is built quickly between the board and VanWagoner.
Van Rheenen accused Kelly of trying to publicly “establish her dominance” over Cardon with an op-ed in the Record-Eagle less that two weeks into Cardon’s tenure.
Kelly wrote about the district’s condemnation of a study from the School Finance Research Collaborative, a move spearheaded under the direction of then-Superintendent Paul Soma. Cardon supported the conclusions in the SFRC study, which proved to be a sticking point for Kelly and other trustees.
The disagreements over funding led to a six-page complaint letter Kelly authored against Cardon and then presented in closed session during an October board meeting. The Record-Eagle is seeking release of that document in its lawsuit.
Kelly did not return a request for comment.
“Hopefully they listen to the words of wisdom that VanWagoner comes with,” Van Rheenen said. “There wasn’t even time to know what could have been different under Cardon. She wasn’t here long enough for any of that to take shape.”
Jim Pavelka stepped in as interim superintendent when Cardon resigned. He’ll step aside Wednesday.
He said the best word to describe his last nine months is “interesting.”
“I’ve never worked so hard in my entire career,” Pavelka said. “In all my 27 years, I’ve never worked harder. But if I was asked to do it again, I would say ‘yes.’”
Pavelka said he’ll pass along his phone number to VanWagoner, a custom he’s held after each time he’s moved on from a district. In his 13 years of retirement, however, Pavelka said he’s gotten very few calls.
“Traverse City is very lucky to have person of his background, his experiences — and his just a good human being,” Pavelka said of VanWagoner. “He knows the business of school, and I’m excited to have him here as the leader of TCAPS.”
Matt Anderson, TCAPS board treasurer, said Traverse City was lucky to have Pavelka as well. He’s grateful the experienced administrator accepted the role during “such a chaotic time.”
“You can see why he was such a success as a superintendent before all of this and for 27 years,” Anderson said. “We need more leaders like him in education.”
Anderson hopes VanWagoner is cut from the same cloth as Pavelka, referring to him as “engaged” and “eager to get rolling.”
“The first thing we have to do is make sure we have a safe learning environment for the kids coming back in the fall,” Anderson said. “Working on a multifaceted approach to what that might look like is the first item on the agenda.”
Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District Superintendent Nick Ceglarek said VanWagoner’s range and depth of experience is “critically important” in the face of the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic provides, including three return-to-learn plans required by the state ahead of the 2020-21 school year.
“We had a taste of those challenges last spring,” Ceglarek said. “John is going to provide that necessary leadership at TCAPS.”
VanWagoner just hopes he can get up to speed and flatten the learning curve that comes with every new job.
“We’re going to need help from all of our partners — from the ISD to the health department to charitable organizations to parents — to come together and weather this thing,” VanWagoner said. “We want to come out on the other side having still provided a world-class education for our students.”