Wrangell officials question school superintendent’s use of CARES Act funds for Juneau trip

Wrangell City Hall. (Photo by KSTK)
Wrangell City Hall. (Photo by KSTK)

Wrangell’s superintendent of schools has apologized for what she called “a heinous and perhaps unforgivable mistake.” That’s following revelations that she chartered a plane for a trip to Juneau for herself and three subordinates.

The Wrangell Assembly responded by rescinding a quarter million dollars in federal pandemic relief funds for the schools and demanded better accounting and accountability from the district.

Wrangell schools superintendent Debbe Lancaster defended the overnight trip to Juneau. She told the school board during a hastily scheduled special meeting last Monday that the district desperately needed supplies for the upcoming semester. Lancaster says she and three unnamed district employees chartered a plane because commercial flights were booked. She says they booked seats on a private ferry home for the same reason.

“I really felt very distinctly when we left the Juneau harbor, and we were all sitting there going, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so horrible, but it’s all worth it,'” she said.

But in the eyes of Wrangell’s elected officials, it wasn’t worth it. The school board, borough assembly and community have raised concerns about almost every aspect of the $5,800 trip.

For one, the trip broke a travel moratorium imposed to cut costs and COVID risk.

Precise details of purchases and travel expenses made on the trip haven’t been made public. Purchased items mentioned at the school board and borough assembly meetings include face masks, face shields, hand sanitizer, a cordless drill, a safe, a shed for gym equipment, food items for “welcome packets,” restaurant meals and a Costco membership. The school district hasn’t released invoices to KSTK, and a records request is still pending.

But as the school board disallowed the trip, the superintendent will have to use vacation days for the unauthorized leave and pay her portion of the trip’s travel and lodging expenses. It’s not clear whether food and lodging for her subordinates will have to be repaid.

What is clear is that the borough assembly took a dim view of the Juneau excursion. In fact, it rescinded $250,000 dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for the district earlier this summer.

Assembly member David Powell said Tuesday evening he feels like the school district superintendent violated the public’s trust.

“In the meeting where we gave this CARES act money to the superintendent, and I quote, ‘The money will be used wisely, and we need to be very thrifty with the money,'” Powell said. “I am sorry, but this is exactly what I was worried about, about this CARES Act money going frivolously away, us getting audited, and guess what, who’s on the hook? Us. My idea of this whole thing is to take this money back. Let them spend their own money, and then they can come back to us later on and ask for money for reimbursement.”

In other words, future federal funds could be available to the school district but with much tighter accounting and controls.

The timing of the trip was bad. Wrangell’s local government has just declared an economic emergency due to the double whammy of COVID-19 and poor salmon returns of all species.

Mayor Steve Prysunka says the school district’s administration can’t use the young people as an excuse when the city is in such dire financial straits.

“And I know it’s going to come back to, and you’re not going to like hearing this, but it’s going to come back to: ‘But it’s for the kids!’ Yeah, well so is sound fiscal management. That’s for the kids. So is water treatment, and sewage treatment; that’s for the kids. And so is providing infrastructure that allows power delivery. That’s for the kids, too. So it’s all for the kids,” he said.

Wrangell School Superintendent Debbe Lancaster declined to be interviewed. She says she’s occupied with catching up and preparing for the beginning of classes next month.

All four people on the trip reportedly tested negative for COVID after returning from Juneau and will be re-tested.

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