TRAVERSE CITY — Tuesday was an anomaly for a local board of education race.
All three incumbent candidates for the Traverse City Area Public Schools Board of Education were ousted from their seats.
Any incumbent losing is a rarity, three losing in the same race is an anomaly.
A Ballotpedia study found that, between 2014-16, nearly 85 percent of incumbents who ran for reelection retained their seats.
Challengers Josey Ballenger, Flournoy Humphreys and Scott Newman-Bale bucked that trend, defeating current TCAPS trustees Jane Klegman, Ben McGuire and Jeff Leonhardt to snag all three contested seats and four-year terms.
Ballenger gathered the most support, tallying 21,848 votes to Humphreys’ 16,336 and Newman-Bale’s 14,791. Klegman received the most votes for the incumbent slate with 12,251. McGuire garnered 10,299 votes, and Leonhardt 10,121. Michael Hurd, who dropped out of the race in October, still received 6,781 votes.
“Our community deeply cares about schools, as it should,” Ballenger said. “I’m happy to see our board move in a new direction with new leaders.”
The three-seat flip comes a little more than a year after TCAPS trustees faced community backlash for their handling of former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s unexpected resignation in October 2019. Klegman and Leonhardt — along with current trustees Sue Kelly and Pam Forton — were at the heart of the controversy surrounding Cardon’s exit.
Newman-Bale called the results a referendum on how the board has operated.
“We’ve known that trust has been eroded,” he said. “The board has had the position that it’s been a vocal minority speaking out against them to brush it off and brush it under the rug.”
McGuire does not expect the change in board members to make much of a difference in how the community views the board.
“There’s a lot of general unhappiness right now, and I don’t see it ending any time soon,” he said. “I think it’s going to linger for a while.”
Klegman doesn’t expect much change in how TCAPS is run, but she is hopeful the new board will work together.
Klegman suggested that Ballenger, Humphreys and Newman-Bale take advantage of training provided by the Michigan Association of School Boards. Klegman is concerned the trio “doesn’t realize what a board does.”
“The board is policy. Eyes in. Hands out,” she said.
Humphreys stayed up until after 3 a.m. checking results, but she had to be up early to get her five dogs to the groomer. She said rustling up her pups for a bath and a haircut might be easier than being a trustee on a potentially divided TCAPS board, but she is more than happy to take that challenge head on.
“I will make every effort to get along and work together,” she said. “That’s the only way we’re going to get anything done. We have to find common ground, and that needs to be our students and teachers.”
Klegman called the election a “popularity contest” and pointed out that the majority of her campaign signs had “gone missing.”
“That was interesting,” she said. “Even when I replaced them, they still went missing. That bothered me. That’s just not OK.”
Newman-Bale is concerned the lingering tension from the race could spill over with trustees Kelly, Matt Anderson and Forton — but he said it doesn’t have to be that way.
An interesting wrinkle to that will be when new trustees elect board officers.
Leonhardt was vice president, which means that vacancy needs to be filled. A change of president is also a possibility.
Kelly currently holds that position, and Justin Van Rheenen wants that “era” to be over.
Van Rheenen, a co-founder of TCAPS Transparency and a vocal critic of the board, said getting Kelly on board with the new direction could be difficult.
“Voters put the board on notice for years to come. We’re awake. We’re seeing what’s happening, and it’s not OK,” Van Rheenen said. “If you choose to continue to use our kids as pawns, as motives for what the public doesn’t want, we will vote you out.”
Van Rheenen spearheaded a recall effort against Kelly, Anderson and Forton that stalled earlier this year when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He’s not counting out the possibility of another recall.
“If those three are doing their job to the best of what the community wants, there’s no reason to look at a recall,” Van Rheenen said. “But it’s not off the table.”
Ballenger, Humphreys and Newman-Bale begin their four-year terms Jan. 1. Their first board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 11.
“I am ready to roll up my sleeves and let the real work begin to refocus our board on what matters most — the students, the teachers and the community,” Ballenger said.