2017-08-03 / Front Page

Nelson’s departure leaves question

Severance package rejected
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff

One week after the resignation of Superintendent Chris Nelson, the Suttons Bay school community continues to ask why he stepped down three months after a glowing evaluation.

Nelson announced his resignation after a closed session with the Board of Education on July 24, saying he had been thinking about the move for some time.

His reasoning is suspect, community members say.

“I don’t know the legalities, but his resignation surprised me,” parent Lee Grant said at a special meeting of the Board of Education Monday night called to address, among other concerns, whether a severance package should be offered. “With only one month before school starts … I don’t think we owe him anything.”

Grant and Mary Woods, whose youngest child, Anya, just graduated from Suttons Bay, are frequent attendees at monthly School Board meetings.

Woods was also surprised by the abrupt resignation.

“I wonder what we’re missing,” Woods said. “Nobody’s talking.”

She said she believes that Nelson lacked a closeness with secondary students that he had at the elementary level.

The disconnect was obvious during a senior awards ceremony in May when he commented that “on the last day of school it was fun to hear all the cheers from the senior class … Their cheers were loud, but the cheers of the teachers were even louder at the end of the day.”

Woods and other parents there to celebrate their graduates’ accomplishments, didn’t like his sentiment.

“It was meant to be funny, but if you don’t have a connection with the group, it doesn’t work,” she said.

Nelson later apologized for the blunder in a letter to the Class of 2017 and their families.

“It was completely intended to be a joke, and in good fun,” he wrote. “The teachers didn’t cheer at the end of the day... I’m obviously not a good comedian and my statement did not go over well with many in attendance that evening and for that I apologize.”

Absent from the board’s last two special meetings was former School Board Trustee Erik Bahle, who resigned five months into his term and one month after Nelson’s “highly effective” review. Bahle, who stepped down citing the need to spend more time with his infant daughter, said Nelson’s resignation could be the culmination of a number of issues.

Bahle said prior to his departure, there had been issues with Nelson’s handling of special education student “Individual Education Plans) (IEPs).

“(Nelson) had no regard for policy and lacked a moral compass,” Bahle said. “It was ‘my way or the highway’ with him and he was forceful with a very complacent board.”

The proverbial straw that may have broken the camel’s back, Bahle believes, was Nelson’s layoff of a much-revered 26-year teacher and two other long time members of the support staff.

“I think they finally had enough and were getting blow-back from the community,” he said.

Nelson’s abrupt departure has frustrated 1994 Suttons Bay graduate Ranve Martinson, whose nieces represent the fifth generation of her family to attend Suttons Bay Public Schools.

“In 20 years, we’ve gone from the largest school in the county to one of the smallest,” she said. “We have a thriving business community. Our school should be too.”

Martinson said she liked the energy that Nelson brought to his job. But there were some moves — such as the proposed $14.2 million bond for construction of a recreation center and refusing to reauthorize Leelanau Montessori’s charter — that she considered ill-advised.

“The whole thing with the pool and the Montessori school left a bitter taste in our mouths,” Martinson said. “It’s like there’s a black cloud over the school. It’s beleaguered and I don’t understand why.”

Return to top