A boat moving away from Wrangell, August 2020.
(Sage Smiley, KSTK)

Wrangell’s assembly and school board are seeking answers from the school district superintendent over her decision to organize an all-expenses paid trip to Juneau for herself and three subordinates. The trip was made to buy supplies for the upcoming school year, was paid for by nine different school accounts, and involved travel on a chartered plane and private ferry.

Listen to the story here.

Wrangell’s school board rejected authorization for the school district superintendent to take leave and travel to Juneau. The problem was by then the trip had already happened. 

Superintendent Debbe Lancaster admitted to the board on Monday that she’d violated district policy by approving a trip despite a moratorium on travel due to budget constraints and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ban was not officially lifted,” Lancaster admitted, “because quite frankly, it was forgotten about.”

The trip presented a multitude of issues in the eyes of the school board which called a special meeting on Monday to discuss the trip and related expenses.

Lancaster insinuated early in the meeting that her trip had been the only unauthorized leave, but later, when pressed, admitted that she did not submit paper leave authorizations for her three unnamed district employees until after their return to Wrangell. She’s also offered to repay her share of the expenses out of her own pocket. 

Facing questions about potential exposure to COVID-19, Lancaster said she and the three district employees had all tested negative for COVID-19, and will have follow up tests done on Saturday.

The purchases themselves were also a cause for concern. The group spent about $5,788 dollars, $1,332 of which would be paid from the city’s COVID mitigation fund. 

School board members brought up the seeming lack of effort to buy products locally, or to ask Wrangell’s EOC for COVID mitigation supplies.

Board member Beth Heller expressed skepticism at the necessity of a trip to make the purchases in the first place. “I have yet to hear what was actually purchased there that absolutely could not be done over the phone or that really forced four faculty members to travel, so if there is some big item that really took four people to get it would be nice to know. It seems like Costco and Home Depot could have been done over the phone,” Heller commented.

Lancaster says there were supplies in Juneau that weren’t available locally, adding: “I was just convinced by my staff that the hand sanitizer was not available.”

She also explained the use of a chartered plane and private ferry, saying commercial flights were booked up last week and the trip was organized at short notice.

KSTK has requested receipts of purchase and invoices detailing the Juneau trip’s expenses. A formal records request filed on Tuesday afternoon is pending.

Items discussed at the meeting that were purchased in Juneau include paper face masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, a cordless drill, a shed for gym equipment, and a safe for Superintendent Lancaster’s office. Lancaster says groceries bought for welcome packets were meant as a good will gesture for students coming back to class during the pandemic.

“We were talking about the fact that there were going to be so many families that were choosing to not enroll in public school because they were mad about masks,” Lancaster explained to the school board. “And we definitely wanted to encourage anyone who did enroll.”

Board member Dave Wilson, offered his opinion, saying the fallout from the trip seems to have caused a lot more damage than it was worth: “I mean, I just fail to see the urgency to it, especially when that’s two weeks away from the trip. Do you even need that food? I just, I’m afraid. I’m afraid that this whole thing… the way it looks in the city,” Wilson stated.

This special school board meeting came a day before the Wrangell borough assembly is set to discuss rescinding a quarter of a million dollars in CARES Act funding from the school district. 

In an unrelated action, the borough assembly is also considering a resolution to declare an economic disaster. Patty Gilbert who serves on both the assembly and school board, says the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the local economy hard and cost people’s jobs. 

“I am just heartsick that our business community was not even considered for purchasing these items,” Gilbert said. “It’s the same business community that donates and sponsors activities and students and programs and sports.”

In the wake of the unauthorized Juneau trip, the school board amended district policy adding language urging the administration to buy local when feasible. It also directed Lancaster to pen a public apology and apply two vacation days to cover her two-day absence while in Juneau.

Wrangell’s Borough assembly meets this evening (8/25) at 7 p.m. The meeting is open to the public via Zoom and phone. 

Get in contact with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.