Seeing is believing.
And what we have seen thus far from Traverse City Area Public Schools trustees doesn’t give us much confidence in their commitment to conducting public business in public view.
Seven weeks, a dozen Freedom of Information Act requests, a specious denial, three appeals, a spate of overturned redactions, a mountain of public pressure and a recall campaign. None of it was enough to compel TCAPS trustees to make the one move that might restore a little public trust in the people we elected to steer a school district that serves 10,000 of our children and commands a $107 million budget.
Nearly two months after this all started, trustees continue to arbitrarily withhold the public documents — a complaint levied against former superintendent Ann Cardon during a closed-session meeting — that might explain why the board paid $180,000 for the widely praised district leader to leave.
She wasn’t fired, and a self-determined resignation wouldn’t merit a payout equal to about 24 students’ state-issued per-pupil funding.
So what shortcoming or disagreement was so irreparable that trustees felt their only choice was to pay their unanimously-hired superintendent to leave? Are the complaints contained in that written grievance capricious or arbitrary? Are they somehow embarrassing to some of the trustees we elect to choose and manage the district’s superintendent?
There is plenty of reason to believe the district might try to stretch exemptions to obscure potentially embarrassing documents from public view.
Just six days ago, the board overturned an illegitimate claim of attorney-client privilege officials used as grounds to redact text message conversations between Cardon and school board President Sue Kelly.
Those records contributed to a growing spotlight on how trustees conduct themselves outside of meetings, calling into question the timeline and cause of Cardon’s departure some trustees, including Kelly, peddled to constituents during the past several weeks.
Unfortunately, we still don’t know what triggered the schism.
But we are pretty sure we know where to look.
The document referred to as a “complaint” in text messages between Cardon and Kelly as the pair worked to quietly hash out the details of a separation agreement in the days following an Oct. 7 closed meeting seems like a good place to start.
The multi-page record that generated a 70-minute closed-door session and later referred to as a “complaint” seems like something that should appear in Cardon’s personnel file. It isn’t there.
It’s also the type of prepared report that plenty of case law dictates is a public record subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Yet, for some reason trustees continue to contort the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to keep the document secret.
First, they claimed that since the complaint debuted during a closed session, it isn’t subject to release.
When they realized case law didn’t support such an exclusion, they pivoted to an equally suspect argument that the document can be considered part of the minutes recorded during the closed meeting and would require a court order to release.
Ironically, it appears Cardon needed little more than a text message — not a FOIA request, an appeal or a court order — to compel district officials to send a copy of that complaint to her lawyer.
A little more public trust erodes each time trustees and officials flail for a new reason to shield the board’s actions from public oversight.
We have seen enough to know there is far more to this story.