More than 60 people showed up for an emotional school board meeting in Traverse City Area Public Schools district Saturday. Most people showed up in support of Superintendent Paul Soma.
The district leader is under scrutiny after TCAPS administrators sent a letter to the school board, listing a number of complaints that including allegations of bullying and intimidation, particularly of female principals. Soma also addressed the public, breaking down as he thanked people for their support. He has said the allegations are unfounded.
The meeting began as teachers, former teachers, parents and members of the executive team stood to make public statements in support of Soma.
Pamela Forton, a math teacher at Traverse City Central High School, said she was part of the teachers union that negotiated teacher contracts with Soma.
“Negotiations are never easy, and things can sometimes get heated,” Forton said. “Even when Mr. Soma disagreed, he was never disrespectful and always respected our opinions.”
She said TCAPS is being held hostage by less than two percent of TCAPS employees. The group of administrators behind the letter of complaints – the Traverse City Administrators Association – is made up of of 31 principals and assistant principals in a district that employs over a thousand people.
“I have never felt disrespected as a teacher, as a union member and certainly not as a woman by Mr. Soma,” Forton said.
Forton’s statement was followed by a loud round of applause from the public.
Margaret Pierson – who teaches music at Eastern Elementary School – said Soma has helped the district avoid crisis after crisis.
“On a personal level, I have felt nothing but support from Mr. Soma. As an elementary music teacher, I could be invisible,” said Pierson. “I am not to him.”
Former school board member, Megan Crandall, also made public comment supporting Soma, calling an investigation into these complaints a waste of time and taxpayers’ money.
A few members of the crowd made public comments backing the TCAA’s allegations of bullying and intimidation. They were primarily parents involved in past negotiations to keep the elementary school on Old Mission Peninsula open. TCAPS officials had recommended closing the school a few years ago.
Jacquie Harding, a parent of Old Mission Peninsula School, said she has experienced intimidation from Soma first hand. She said Soma contacted her boss at Munson Medical Center, saying she was conducting business for the elementary school while on the clock for Munson.
“Which is proof pretty much of evidence of a trend of intimidation with parents as well as these administrators, that you have eight pages of crazy stories [about],” said Harding.
During this special meeting of the school board, General Counsel Kevin Harty told the board they are legally obligated to investigate the TCAA’s claims of gender-based discrimination under federal and state law. Board members agreed to hire Traverse City accounting firm, Rehmann, to investigate the allegations. Rehmann has estimated the investigation would cost between $7,165 and $8,265. An investigation last year into different complaints against Soma and the executive team cost the district more than $43,000.
Only one member of the TCAA identified himself at the meeting. TCAA’s attorney Andrew Shotwell made a statement to the board, saying the TCAA’s intention was not to instigate a costly investigation. He said members of the TCAA were not at the meeting for fear of retaliation. He reiterated the same point to explain why the complaints in the TCAA’s letter were anonymous.
“There is a real person behind every one of their claims,” said Shotwell.
One board member, Jan Geht, was also not present at the meeting. He sent a statement, which board president Erik Falconer read. The statement said Geht was intentionally not attending the meeting because he wanted to avoid making a preformed opinion about the allegations until a full fact-finding investigation was made.
The meeting ended with Superintendent Paul Soma making an emotion statement to the board, referencing a letter he sent to the board Saturday morning.
Soma told the board that his position as superintendent comes with intense public scrutiny, which is part of the job.
“There’s imperfection, and when you want to find imperfection, you will find it,” Soma said.
He said, while this has been a difficult time, it has come with many blessings.
“I’ve learned a ton of lessons,” said Soma. “I’ve been given the opportunity for deep reflection. I’ve reviewed priorities. People have helped me examine my relationship with God.”
He went on to thank TCAPS’ executive team, his mother, children and wife, pausing throughout to collect himself and wipe away tears.
“Give me 30 seconds,” he said. “I will keep this together even though it doesn’t look like it.”
He wrapped up by thanking the board for giving him the chance to speak.
“It’s actually another life blessing to be able to do that even though I’m a crying, sopping mess in front of the world to see,” Soma says, “but that is part of being in this position, that you are subject to that. And I am who I am, definitely imperfect. … always [working] towards improvement.”
Soma’s statement was met with applause and a standing ovation from the audience, as his family and TCAPS employees also wiped away tears.
The school board will meet on Monday for Soma’s annual performance evaluation. The board will decide if they want to renew Soma’s contract with the district, which expires June 30, 2018.
While the gender-based discrimination allegations will be investigated by a third-party, the other claims made in the TCAA’s letter are not subject to investigation. The board says those additional complaints will be considered during Soma’s evaluation on Monday, along with statements in support of the superintendent.