Attorney says PI Academy had to make changes

by Peter Jakey-Managing Editor

More than 50 people attended Tuesday’s town hall meeting to discuss recent decisions at Presque Isle (PI) Academy that have resulted in the dismissal of the teaching staff and director.

Parents and students of the academy, along with former employees and members of the community, expressed concerns and disappointment with the recent decisions, and urged the board to bring back the teaching staff.

CANDACE SORENSON, the attorney representing Presque Isle Academy, outlined the events that led up to the board’s decision to contract with EDUStaff. Sitting behind her are board present Kammie Dennis and vice president Mark Schuler. (Photo by Peter Jakey)

There were a few heated moments, such as one mother raising her voice and slamming her hand on a table. One person was asked to leave the meeting when the regular monthly meeting started.

Candace Sorenson of CS3 Charter School Consulting Services of Grand Rapids represented the PI Academy board and facilitated the meeting and allowed audience members to provide public comment, but did not promise that any questions would be answered.

Sorenson, who has been the board’s attorney since last month, opened by running through the chain of events that led to the board’s decision to contract with EDUStaff to handle all of the school’s future employment needs.

A three-page “timeline of events” was passed out to audience members, which stated that the employment contracts of teachers Tricia Schell and Kristin Holberton, as well as director Rick Bongard, terminated June 30. It is also when the terms of board members Mitch James and Bruce Marshall expired.

Sorenson said the decision to contract with EDUStaff was made to “clear up certification issues.” She said the “rubber hit the road” at the July 11 meeting of the Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Service District (COP ESD) meeting. COP ESD is the authorizer of PI Academy.

“It became clear that if this school wanted to become reauthorized and continue to exist, things had to change, that there were laws that were not being complied with, that they absolutely had to address in order to move forward,” said Sorenson. “One of which is, its teaching staff had to be certified, or had to have permits.”

Sorenson, who represents charter schools all over the state, said, “I don’t have a single academy that employs its own staff, because it is so expensive to the academy to be the employer of staff.

“All of the schools I represent, almost without exception, use an employee leasing company like EDUStaff, or another management company to hire the staff; pay the staff; supervise the staff; in order to avoid very significant retirement costs.”

Sorenson said if PI Academy wanted to survive it has to be fiscally responsible and comply with state laws. She added that COP ESD voted to reduce the board from seven to five at their July 11 meeting.

“The board has been very happy with the teaching staff here,” said Sorenson. “If the teaching staff was certified for secondary education, it would be a much easier evening for us. Unfortunately, they are certified for elementary education. And frankly, it could put diplomas at stake. It could put state funding at stake. It is a big deal to not have teachers who are certified for the grade level that they are teaching… If they are not certified, there are processes for getting waivers, getting permits, but the state confirmed that did not happen in this case.”

Sorenson said staff has been encouraged to reapply with EDUStaff.

PI Academy conducted a special meeting July 17 and approved budgets, hired legal counsel and acknowledged COP ESD’s resolution to reduce the board from seven to five. They also voted on officers. Kammie Dennis is president, while Mark Schuler serves as vice president. The other members are Liz Stankewitz, Kathy Claus and Tom Lupu, who was not at the July 17 meeting.

The decision to contract with EDUStaff was made at another special meeting, July 29.

Near the end of the meeting, Bongard refuted the board’s attorney.  He said she did not have the facts.

“You should not be making me the scapegoat,” said Bongard. “I had an audit with (COP ESD superintendent) Mary Vratanina and (COP ESD board member) Sue Muschell. We met with Larry Lawless, who said it is perfectly legal, and it is creative, to have elementary certified teachers in here, facilitating Nova Net curriculum.

“(Lawless) works for the MDE (Michigan Department of Education). He is not a hired lawyer. He actually works for the Department of Education and said, absolutely, completely legal. Nova Net is the delivery model, not the teacher. They facilitate it – that means they help.”

Bongard continued, “so, get it right. Don’t try and act like you know what you are talking about. This isn’t necessary to do this. And to lock everybody out, good teachers, instead of telling them, ‘hey, we have to work on something.’ What do you do? You locked the doors and we find out that our keys don’t work.”

He further commented that new board members, Claus, Stankewitz and Lupu, are “too new to know what has been really going on. So, I hope you were listening tonight.”

He commended COP ESD board member Muschell, who was in attendance keeping notes. “She is always here,” said Bongard. “She is at our graduations, and she is here tonight, because she is probably the one person that has the guts to stand up and do something about all of this.”

Some parents expressed a concern about EDUStaff bringing in a teaching staff in time for the new school year.

EDUStaff representative Clark Galloway, who was at the meeting, said he had several applicants respond to advertisements, but no decisions had been made as of Tuesday. “We have done it as fast as we can,” said Galloway.

Citizen Chad Chapman appealed to the board to keep the staff on through the first semester.

He also had several questions about meeting notices being posted, and expressed a concern about new staff coming in.

“If you bring staff members in here that think they are going to run this school like a public school, it is going to flip-flop on you in the first week,” said Chapman. “You have to know how to deal with these kids. Mr. Bongard and his staff knew how to do that. It won’t work with another staff.

“Rick Bongard has made this school what it is, not this board…this school has arrived at a point of respectability in this community.”

Regarding certification, former board member Mitch James, who served on the board for nine years, said there are a lot of students who believe the former staff was qualified.

“If it were up to the students, I can tell you, there would be a lot of different teachers in a lot of schools,” Sorenson responded.

Student Elainna McDowell commented that “these teachers have been the foundation of this building. Their compassion and understanding for kids, who would have never graduated, without their guidance to help.”

With that taken away, McDowell said students are not going to show up for school.

“This was a bad decision,” she said. “Clearly, many agree.”

McDowell, who is entering her last year of school, said she struggled in the regular high school setting. “When I graduate this year, I want to shake hands with the people, onstage, who have seen me this far.”

Former board member Bruce Marshall said, “People in the community know what is going on, it is a power play — strictly, a power play by two people on the board.” The two people he was talking about are Dennis and Schuler. He said this matter was “handled unprofessional.”

Marshall urged Lupu, Stankewitz and Claus to vote Dennis and Schuler off the board. He addressed them and said, “you could become heroes in this town…if you will vote those two off, and correct what has been done, because these teachers can come back and teach Nova Net curriculum.”

The regular meeting commenced after 7 p.m., and lasted about 15 minutes. There was additional public comment and a report from Galloway.