Transparency laws set a bar to exceed, not a floor to stoop toward.
Yet, officials working for Traverse City Area Public Schools have invested themselves far too vigorously in the latter.
Our community is tired of being left in the dark by the people who are charged with leading the organization that shepherds our children through some of the most important years of their lives.
TCAPS trustees will have to excuse thousands of their constituents, including us, who have expressed our disdain for their opaque decision-making processes.
For some time, district officials, both elected and hired, have done their level best to meet only the minimum requirements of Michigan’s transparency laws.
Despite what some may contend, stretching response times for records requests to 15 business days flouts the spirit of our state’s open records law.
Some have treated statutory floors for public access to district decisions and documents as if they have no incentive to rise above the minimum.
We’re left wondering what value TCAPS officials might place on public trust?
The contortions of public access laws we’ve witnessed during the past few weeks are familiar to the journalists who cover the region’s largest school system, but foreign to the constituents who rarely attend meetings or seek public records.
At least they were until last week when our community ran headlong into some officials’ efforts to shield their decisions from public view.
Throngs of onlookers voiced their unhappiness with the secrecy more than a week ago during a last-minute special meeting of TCAPS trustees. A hurricane of public discussion, speculation and anger over trustees’ insufficient or non-existent responses to questions about district leadership fanned unrest in the days that followed. And a standing-room-only crowd scrunched into a second short-notice meeting where trustees announced they sent Ann Cardon — the superintendent they unanimously voted to hire just a few months earlier — packing with a severance agreement.
District officials, elected or hired, made little effort to shed light on the basis for the schism between Cardon and trustees.
Those same leaders exerted the minimum effort to notify our community about the pair of untelevised special meetings they set to discuss the superintendent’s fate — the sessions were quietly added to the trustees’ online calendar with barely the 18 hours notice required by the Open Meetings Act.
Hundreds attended those meetings while tens of thousands watched them through livestreams provided by the Record-Eagle.
Yet, even those in the room or watching from afar found themselves shut out of trustees’ discussions and decision-making process.
Nearly a week later, we still don’t know how much of your money trustees paid Cardon in exchange for her resignation. We also have no idea what is contained in the multi-page complaint board President Sue Kelly levied against the superintendent she so praised during a hiring process just a few months earlier. Nor does the public know how trustees decided to tap former TCAPS Superintendent Jim Pavelka to serve as an interim leader for the district — there was no public discussion about the appointment, just motions and a vote.
We’re left to wonder why district officials have been so reluctant to involve their community, their constituents in such a significant decision. Or why those same decision makers haven’t at least worked quickly to release documents sought by the Record-Eagle through Freedom of Information Act requests. Those records likely will shed light on the facts behind such a sudden leadership shift — facts the voting public has shown great interest in learning.
The Record-Eagle is committed to providing transparency where district leaders seem reluctant to do so. We will post to a public archive all documents produced by a laundry list of FOIA requests we filed with the school district during the past two weeks.
Because our community will receive the transparency it demands from TCAPS, one way or another.