The superintendent of northern Michigan’s largest school district will keep his job. The board of Traverse City Area Public Schools voted unanimously to keep Superintendent Paul Soma during his annual performance evaluation Monday.
The board also voted to give the superintendent a 1.5 percent raise from a base salary of $155,000 to $158,000 in the first year.
The superintendent left the meeting after five and half hours before hearing the final decision.
Soma’s three year contract renewal comes after much scrutiny following allegations he intimidates and bullies principals – particularly female principals. He allegedly told a female principal that she only had her job because of him. Another female principal said Soma repeatedly asserted his authority over her, reminding her his title is superintendent.
The allegations came from the Traverse City Administrators Association, which is made up of 31 TCAPS principals and assistant principals. The TCAA gave a vote of no confidence in Soma’s leadership at the end of February, providing five pages of detailed, anonymous complaints.
Around a hundred people came to watch the meeting, including many members of the TCAA. In a rare move, the public got to hear the school board’s evaluation of the superintendent firsthand. Soma had requested the performance evaluation be closed to the public, which Board President Erik Falconer said is how it’s always been done as far as he knew. But board member Jan Geht requested the evaluation be open to the public.
Geht said given the current toxic environment in the district, he thought the public deserved to know the reasons behind board members’ votes.
"What this board needs to do is reassert its position as the body that is responsible for healing the system," Geht said, "and going behind closed doors I don't think accomplishes that. I think there is a lack of trust, and that lack of trust is not going to be fixed by a vote. What the people need to know is why we make the decisions that we do."
Geht, Scott Hardy and Kelly Clark voted for the meeting to be open. Erik Falconer, Doris Ellery, Jane Klegman and Sue Kelly voted for the meeting to be closed. Closed session requires a super majority vote from the board.
The evaluation was long, with the superintendent frequently getting off topic and struggled to directly answer questions. Board member Kelly Clark repeatedly pressed Soma to say what he would have done differently with the TCAA.
“I am very reflective, and I reflect all the time,” Soma answered the first time. “It’s a very hard question.”
Kelly pressed Soma again.
“My passionate personality will cause people to hear the wrong thing,” Soma said.
Geht finally jumped in, asking Soma if he could recognize that subordinates feel he intimidates them.
“I have to recognize that,” Soma responded. “That’s the message that’s been delivered by your reports.”
Falconer said the goal moving forward is for staff to feel like they can be open and come forward with complaints.
“We’ve recognized that that isn’t the case,” says Falconer. “I think that’s a valuable recognition.”
Soma said moving forward there needs to be safe, open communication with all employees in the district – including the TCAA, and he suggested conflict resolution by a professional could be helpful.
Despite the allegations against Soma, board members said he is an "effective" leader, balancing the budget, securing three-year contracts for teachers, working with the Traverse Bay Intermediate School District and shifting school dollars towards district priorities. They said they could not discount these positive contributions when making a decision.
One board member did call Soma a "bull in a china shop" and most acknowledged he has to work on his interpersonal skills.
Scott Hardy made it clear that the superintendent is “on notice” due to the TCAA’s allegations and other statements of intimidation made by the public and other bargaining units within TCAPS.
“This is a last chance,” Hardy said. “It’s critical at this point.”
Board members agreed that they have to change the way they evaluate the superintendent in the future and put guidelines in place to make sure the superintendent improves his relationships with employees within the next year.
Hardy also said that in order for a resolution to happen, some members of the TCAA will have to make their complaints without anonymity.
An investigation into allegations of gender-based discrimination began Monday. If wrongdoing is found, the school board could choose to terminate the superintendent's contract at any time.