‘We are rewarding an individual for keeping our schools open’: $20,000 bonus for Mat-Su superintendent

PALMER — The Mat-Su school board last week gave the district’s relatively new superintendent a $20,000 bonus, with several members citing continuing in-person classes throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Last fall, as Anchorage and many other districts stayed in remote learning mode, Matanuska-Susitna Borough schools opened in person, reportedly the largest district on the West Coast to do so. The borough about the size of West Virginia but with a fraction of the population trends government-wary and more conservative than Anchorage.

Superintendent Randy Trani was hired in May 2020, a few months into the pandemic. Trani, who grew up in Cordova, moved up from Corbett, Oregon, to take the job.

During a meeting last Wednesday, the school board that oversees the roughly 19,000-student district voted unanimously to give Trani the bonus.

“The city of Anchorage gave their superintendent a $15,000 bonus and publicized it, for keeping their schools closed. Our superintendent kept our schools open,” board member Tom Bergey said during the meeting. “This needs to be publicized to the state, that we are not rewarding an individual for closing our schools. We are rewarding an individual for keeping our schools open.”

The Anchorage school board in March approved a $15,000 raise for Anchorage schools superintendent Deena Bishop, raising her gross annual salary to $250,000.

The Mat-Su superintendent will earn $213,150 a year, according to a three-year proposed contract that includes a provision for performance incentives of up to $25,000 each year. The board meets Aug. 18 to approve it.

Only one member of the public testified about the Mat-Su bonus: teacher Kathleen Yerbich.

Yerbich said Trani already earns a generous salary and, while he deserves credit for his work during the pandemic, so do numerous others ranging from parents and students to “lunch ladies” and custodians.

“As I am digging into my savings to buy extra composition notebooks, sets of story books, granola bars, Cup-a-Soup, I am saddened and bothered by the fact my school board is giving monies away unjustifiably,” she said. “You are either out of touch with the constraints of budget or you don’t care. Both are a violation of your job as members of a school board.”

Part of Trani’s salary was suspended as a performance bonus, board member Jim Hart said. But COVID-19 presented too many variables to hold Trani to conventional performance measures.

“The only goal we gave him was please keep schools open,” Hart said.

[Mat-Su, Alaska’s largest school district with in-person classes, reports tripling of COVID-19 cases this month]

Mat-Su, like other regions, is experiencing a sharp increase in new COVID-19 cases linked to the more transmissible delta variant. Vaccinated people can spread the variant, though they’re more protected from getting the virus and from getting severely ill or dying.

Mat-Su is the least vaccinated urban region in the state. As of Tuesday, there were 11 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

Now with school resuming for most students next week, Anchorage and Mat-Su are both offering in-person learning but with different mask policies.

Following Centers for Disease Control guidance for masking indoors at schools, Anchorage is requiring them. Mat-Su is recommending but not requiring masks, though positive COVID-19 cases could change that.

“We’re really trying to keep it as normal as possible this year,” Trani said during the school board meeting.

A district survey with more than 750 respondents indicated 71% opposed a mask requirement, he said.

Last school year, schools or classrooms sporadically shifted to in-person learning as cases or outbreaks popped up. The entire district temporarily shifted to remote learning in November when high case numbers led to numerous absences, including teachers and substitutes needed to keep classes going.

Trani said he hoped vaccinated teachers will help keep absences down this year.

Students and staff who are fully vaccinated -- as well as those who had COVID-19 within the past three months, Trani said -- also can return to school without quarantining if they’re considered close contacts of people testing positive.

School board member Ryan Ponder pushed back against the quarantine requirements during last week’s meeting.

On the subject of quarantine instructions, Ponder wanted to know “who knighted” the public health nurses working with the district on COVID-19 response. He asked how people who break quarantine are punished.

Trani said the district’s insurance policy requires adherence to public health recommendations. He also said the state “deputizes” local public health nurses and there was “no legal penalty” for breaking quarantine.

Mat-Su public health nurses, like their counterparts around the state, are not deputized, state officials say. They are employed by a section of the state Division of Public Health, which is part of the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.

Hart said anyone who breaks quarantine runs the risk of shutting down a school by spreading the virus.

“So don’t do that,” he said.