TRAVERSE CITY – The past is reflected in the present after an August court ruling stripped public schools in the Traverse City area of one of its buildings.
TCAPS Education Council Trustees voted earlier this week to appeal a 13th Circuit Court ruling that returned the Interlochen Community School property to the Interlochen Arts Center. TCAPS had operated the building since 1951 under a rental agreement with the ICA, but the facility has remained largely unused since the district discontinued the elementary school program in 2016.
Documents filed with the 13th Circuit Court show that part of the contract between the district and the ICA included a ‘return clause’ that required the property to be used for public school purposes or returned to the owner. ICA legal counsel maintains that TCAPS has not used the property for these purposes since the end of the 2018-2019 school year, and TCAPS stated in a February 2021 response brief that “it has not used the property for these purposes. there has been no educational program ‘on the property since that time. .
However, attorneys for TCAPS argued that the wording of the contract was not so restrictive that it defined “public school goals” as only traditional in-person classroom instruction.
District officials said the building has been used for SAT tests, school reunions and extracurricular activities since a TCAPS-run virtual home education program hosted there ceased operations in July 2019.
In February 2017, TCAPS officials – in an attempt to use the building – launched the Northern Michigan Partnership at Interlochen Community.
NMP was a virtual home education program that offered elective classes to K-12 students in the building one day a week.
The program ran until the end of the 2018-19 school year, but was shut down after a Michigan Department of Education investigation cost TCAPS $ 2 million in state aid .
MDE auditors and other officials investigated the method of student counting used by TCAPS for NMP and found that the district had received more funding than allowed by the State School Aid Act due to poor classification of NMP students. A quality control review of the MDE conducted in July 2018 concluded that the TCAPS had erroneously reported student enrollment in the NMP.
Deyar Jamil – a former TCAPS Board of Education candidate – is the one who brought the issue to public view, calling it a “tax fire” in 2018.
“I don’t understand why TCAPS won’t release (the school) to allow the Interlochen community to use it for its highest and best use,” Jamil said. “Let the community do what is best for the community, rather than just park a dead car in it to save the place. “
Interlochen Community was one of three TCAPS schools closed over the past five years, along with Bertha Vos and Old Mission. The closures caused upheaval in Traverse City, with critics lambasting the neighborhood for what they saw as a short-sighted decision in a growing community.
TCAPS vice-chair of the board of directors Erica Moon Mohr – who was the only director to vote against filing an appeal – was not a director of TCAPS when the community of Interlochen was closed in 2016, but she said the decision to close the elementary school was the product of poor leadership by then Superintendent Paul Soma.
Moon Mohr also called the Northern Michigan Partnership a “weak attempt” to use the school under the guidelines set out in the contract.
Voting against the remedy was a difficult decision for Moon Mohr.
“We either had to find a use for the building or just walk away,” she said. “I just can’t imagine it feeling good as a member of the community to see this empty building just sitting there. “
Soma did not respond to requests for comment.
Moon Mohr said current Superintendent John VanWagoner has good intentions and ideas to bring the community of Interlochen back to life. But between being a new superintendent, the COVID-19 pandemic and then TCAPS being hit by the lawsuit trying to take back ownership of the building, Moon Mohr said neither VanWagoner nor the board had had the opportunity to put in place plans to bring students back into the school.
“Dr. VanWagoner was really trying,” she said.
ICA President Trey Devey and VanWagoner met in August 2020 to discuss future plans for the Interlochen community. At that time, TCAPS had no developing public school program for the 2020-21 school year and ICA officials then triggered the return clause. This decision led to the ICA lawsuit against TCAPS in October 2020.
At the end of July – although the lawsuit has not been settled – VanWagoner announced its intention to reopen the community of Interlochen and transform it into an “innovative and early childhood education center”. VanWagoner then announced its intention to offer the school as an optional mask site as well.
Devey said he and other ICA members only learned of TCAPS ‘plans for the building when they were publicly announced. With title to the property in issue and a court hearing set to take place in a few days, Devey said he was surprised by the news. This is one of the reasons they decided to offer to continue the lease for $ 1 per month plus utility charges, which TCAPS officials refused.
“There has been enormous disruption for young people and their families in recent months. We made our offer in an effort to limit this disruption, ”Devey said.
VanWagoner said plans to use the building for the GSRP and a masked elective school failed because there were not enough registrations for either.
TCAPS had authorized an unaffiliated homeschool program to use the building, but VanWagoner said it was now “in the air”.
TCAPS board chairman Scott Newman-Bale said the directors had not had an open discussion on the matter at the meetings. The case was still “early in the process,” and VanWagoner and Newman-Bale expected the trial to drag on much longer than it did. VanWagoner said he had already scheduled a trial on his schedule.
“The decision came a bit out of the blue,” Newman-Bale said. “I don’t think anyone really expected that.”
With a call on the horizon, VanWagoner said the future of the Interlochen community within TCAPS is uncertain.
“If there is a good use in the community, we are for it,” said VanWagoner. “If it’s us, if it’s them, if it’s multiple entities, we would just love to sit down at the table and see if there is an element for a win-win situation.”