The Ketchikan School District seal on display at the superintendent’s office. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

Ketchikan’s departing superintendent will receive more than $80,000 for resigning. Ketchikan’s school board ratified the lump sum payment — equal to 130 days of pay and benefits — at its regular meeting Wednesday. The board also approved a budget for next school year and discussed the search for an interim superintendent.

The stated purpose of an $80,624 payment to departing Ketchikan Superintendent Beth Lougee remains unanswered. School Board President Kim Hodne called the agreement to a vote quickly and without comment.

“It’s been moved and seconded for the Board of Education to approve a separation agreement with Ms. Beth Lougee,” Hodne said. “Discussion? Seeing none, please call the roll.”

And that was that.

Lougee’s tenure since her promotion to lead as superintendent in 2018 has not been without controversy. Ketchikan’s tribe said it had no confidence in her ability to lead the district following reports that she under-equipped Native cultural faculty.

In the days leading up to and after the vote, the school board president has not returned calls, messages or emails asking what the money was for. None of the board have been willing to discuss the issue. One board member referred the question to Ketchikan’s borough attorney, who did not respond to inquiries.

There’s no language in the superintendent’s contract mandating a severance payment upon her resignation. She would be eligible to cash out as many as 35 days of annual leave, but that’s well short of the 130 days’ pay that the board approved.

And the decision to pay the embattled superintendent more than $80,000 comes as Ketchikan’s borough continues to reckon with an ongoing education fund deficit that threatens to drain reserves. Her last day was Friday.

In other business Wednesday, the school board approved a $41.5 million budget for next school year. It’s about $120,000 – a fraction of a percent – higher than the spending plan the board green-lit earlier this month.

The updated budget includes funding for an unfilled world language teacher position that had originally been slated to be cut, plus an administrative assistant for the district’s cultural coordinator.

Teachers union leaders asked the board to maintain funding for small classes brought on by COVID-19. Valerie Brooks is vice president of the Ketchikan Education Association and holds a Ph.D in education and says she’s studied the issue.

“We appreciate the possibility that we’ve been able to experience and engage in this year with with smaller class sizes,” Brooks said. “Really, sizes of students-to-teacher ratio that research for many years has borne out as beneficial for time on task, for students’ self esteem, for access to instruction and discovery.”

The district’s business manager said pandemic relief funds would indeed allow the district to keep the student-to-teacher ratio low for the next two years. Hodne, the board president, said it was an opportunity for the district to experiment with additional funding for educators.

“We’ve got two years to really make the district shine and prove the class sizes and the numbers — that this is what we need, this is how it should be,” Hodne said. “Then, two years from now — good luck on that board — but that can be their fight, because we will have proof in the results.”

The board also set a meeting for Tuesday to weigh a decision about who should fill the superintendent’s role on an interim basis. That’s after Board Clerk-Treasurer Bridget Mattson raised concerns about a three-board member committee Hodne convened to discuss candidates for the interim job without the approval of the full board.

“We really need to be open, we need to engage our stakeholders, even for an interim, we should have a hiring process. We have a hiring process in our district now, which we didn’t, but we have one now — we’ve developed it,” Mattson said.

She says the district has agreements in place requiring input from the local teachers’ union and tribal government. She says the school board needs to honor that and conduct its business transparently.

“We’re supposed to have all of this as part of our hiring process for our admin, and for us to subvert that as a non-board-policy functioning board and decide something in an executive session is — I can’t support that,” Mattson said.

Hodne defended the decision to convene the committee, saying the decision is time-sensitive.

Other board members like Paul Robbins, Jr expressed support for a more open and deliberate hiring process.

“If our process is not great, then it doesn’t matter who we pick, that person will be poisoned,” Robbins said. “I think that’s already happened in previous hirings, and it will happen again, if the public doesn’t think that we did exactly the right process doesn’t matter who we pick, they will not support and like that superintendent.”

The board appointed the school district’s business manager as acting superintendent until an interim replacement is determined. They’ll meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Ketchikan’s White Cliff Building to discuss who should be appointed interim superintendent.