Sheri Hogeboom and her son Ian of Whitehorse break out of the woods toward the aid station during the 19th annual Buckwheat Ski Classic. See story, results and more photos in features . AC

Double exit

Top clinic staffers cite ‘politics’ as main reason for leaving

Bartlett Regional Hospital has decided not to renew the contract of Skagway’s Dahl Clinic Administrator Kathie Dawson after concerns were voiced by the City of Skagway, which owns the clinic.
Chief of Staff Cynthia Farrell also will be leaving in the near future for personal and professional reasons, forcing Bartlett and the city to find new personnel to fill these key positions.
This is not uncharted territory for the clinic, which has seen the coming and going of staff members on a regular basis, a name revision, the shifting of operational oversight from a non-profit corporation to the city and Bartlett, a cease and desist letter from the lawyer of a disgruntled former employee, and all the while trying to find a new location, building, and equipment in an effort to raise community faith in the medical facility.
Bartlett Hospital Administrator Bob Valiant spoke from his office in Juneau about Dawson’s contract. He said, “Our contract with the city called for them to be satisfied with her.”
Valiant received a letter from City Manager Bob Ward informing him that the city was not satisfied.
“I don’t know how in depth I want to get on personnel issues,” said Ward, who added that Dawson was on a probationary period, which allows the city to let her go for any reason.
“We did elect to let her go,” he said.
Ward also noted it is likely Bartlett will not retain her services but would cover her moving expenses back to Juneau.
Dawson returned to Skagway on Wednesday to begin packing her things. She had been on major medical leave three times since taking the job last summer, and explained that the city wrongly used that as a reason to terminate her contract. She said that the Alaska Family Leave Act protected her for 18 weeks. She has hired an attorney to look into the matter but is unsure if she will challenge her dismissal.
Bartlett will give her a severance package and let her resign the position, she said, but added that “most of my problems were with the politics and the micro-managing by the board.”
Until Bartlett can hire a new permanent administrator, clinic receptionist, billing clerk and long-time Skagway resident Becky Jensen will act as the interim administrator. Jensen has worked at the clinic since the summer of 2004.
“I’m a little nervous,” said Jensen about her new responsibilities. Jensen plans to apply for the position when Bartlett officially posts it.
Clinical Director Farrell also will be leaving on July 5.
Board Chair Leslie Dodd said the reasons for the departure had to do with Farrell’s husband’s problems adjusting to the darkness and a lack of year-round work.
Farrell cited those same reasons, but said that her husband could have adjusted. She sees bigger problems facing the clinic that may not be so easy to fix.
“The reason I’m leaving is the politics, bottom line,” she said in an interview on Wednesday.
She went on to say that both the board and the city hire personnel with expectations that things will be brought up to accepted standards, but the problem is that “everyone has an agenda.”
Farrell describes Dawson as “intelligent and capable” and believes that stress on the job led to poor health and thus many absences that ultimately had much to do with the decision not to renew her contract.
“She was absent for seven weeks due to surgery,” she said.
Another problem cited by Farrell includes the makeup of the board. “The board members were supposed to change and they haven’t.”
She added that this has created a problem of “too many chiefs and not enough Indians.... There is no freedom for things to go in a smooth direction when everyone is pulling you a different way.”
Dawson echoed this sentiment, saying there are not enough business people on the board.
What does Farrell see as a solution?
Decent housing would be a start. She described her housing, where she pays her own rent as a “drafty, old house with black walls that we are not allowed to paint.”
Farrell has a solution for her perceived “politics” problem. She said, “Let people in health care handle health care. Everyone else should sit back and enjoy the ride.”
At an April 5 clinic hiring committee meeting with medical staff, Dodd, and board member John Warder, it became evident what Farrell’s loss means for the clinic.
Farrell provided direction at the meeting about the hiring of new personnel in the summer after reviewing their resumes. The necessary hires would be a seasonal locum, which is a temporary provider for the summer, and a new clinical director to replace Farrell.
There are two potential candidates that have really impressed Farrell. “Have them both come up (as locums for the summer) and choose one for the permanent position,” she suggested.
She went on to say that if the hiring was handled in this way, then Physician’s Assistant Jim Cassell could handle the interim clinical director position while the two summer locums, who would be vying for the director position with Cassell, were employed throughout the summer. This would not only provide the clinic with an evaluation period for the potential permanent clinical director, but it would also give those individuals the opportunity to see if they like Skagway.
“That’s a good way to learn somebody,” said Cassell. “You need to be a part of the team.”
“By August you would definitely know,” said Jensen.
Farrell’s favorite potential employee is vastly qualified and has expressed interest in the job. However, with only three weeks until the start of May there is some doubt as to whether or not he will ultimately take the job.
It has been city policy not to provide housing for any of the clinic summer personnel. This is not the norm in the industry, and the potential future employee is holding out for free housing.
Farrell urged Dodd to discuss changing this policy. “Most locum jobs include housing,” said Farrell.
“The city doesn’t want to be in the housing business,” responded Dodd.
“Then they can’t be in the clinic business,” answered Farrell. “Fifteen years ago I had housing as a locum.”
Dodd and Jensen agreed to discuss the issue with City Manager Ward, but the board is feeling the pressure of the oncoming summer season.
Jensen may be the key to bringing everything together. She already has ideas and is providing answers on how to solve some problems faced with being open in the evenings during the summer. “The walk-in thing needs to be reevaluated,” she said.
Jensen would like to see the clinic go to a more appointment-based operation, as it would make things run smoother. She added that the hiring of an evening medical assistant from Skagway’s pool of Emergency Medical Technicians to work during those evening hours, could take additional pressure off of the evening caregiver.
Farrell agreed that having evening assistant would be key. “Providers should not be here by themselves.... The clinic loses money because there is nobody here to collect it,” she said.
All agreed that if the clinic is to be open until 7 p.m. in the summer, filling the position is something they will need to accomplish.
All of the issues will be discussed with the city in the coming weeks, hopefully in time for the summer season.

Separating the issues

How the CVB managed to find compromise amidst controversy over director’s desire to walk for his heart, community

Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue’s request for a nine month leave of absence from his job with the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau was approved March 30, so he can put his feet to good use in a cross-country walk and paddle he is calling “The Heartbeat Trail.”
Donahue plans to begin his cross-continental journey in October of 2005, walking from Miami to Whitehorse, canoeing the Yukon River from there to the Bering Sea, walking up the coast to Nome, and then flying back to Whitehorse to resume the final leg of his trek, walking from the Yukon’s capital to his home.
To date he has raised about $50,000 and enough will be pledged, he said, to cover nine months of his salary, and raise money to equip the local clinic with needed heart equipment. The first three months will be vacation time that he has accrued over the past six years as tourism director.
Passage of Donahue’s request was unanimous but not without misgivings over the course of a long day.
The meeting began on a sour note with City Manager Bob Ward addressing the board.
“The mayor said five board members are ready to resign because Buckwheat wasn’t listening to the board’s concerns,” said Ward. “How do we remedy that?”
CVB Chair Tina Cyr went so far as to suggest the entire leave of absence issue be tabled and taken up in a future meeting, but the board decided to tackle the matter as its last order of business.
“I sent out a synopsis to all of you on the proposal,” said Donahue. “You’ve had 10 months to think about it.”
Ward then commented that there had been two previous examples of a prominent city official taking an extended leave of absence. One was Ward himself, who took four months off to run for State House when he was tourism director. The other was librarian Julene Fairbanks, who took an entire summer off with the support of the Library Board.
“I do support Buckwheat’s walk,” said Ward. “I do believe there is value for Skagway in the walk.”
Ward added that while he has the authority to grant the leave of absence, no matter what the board decided, he felt it “would not be in the best interest of anyone with a strong objection from the board.”
Ward said the two requirements he felt were pertinent would be zero cost to the city and that “Buckwheat not die.”
Board member Carol Bourcy asked, “Why are we being asked to vote?”
Bourcy and member Bruce Schindler both expressed concern that the board was under a lot of stress to make a decision. “It’s forcing us to reconcile a lot of things we’ve been hedging on for a long time,” said Schindler.
One of those things was made evident when city council member Dan Henry, who advises the board, asked Ward if there were any ideas over who might be an interim replacement.
Ward mentioned the name of Cynde Adams, who has been rumored as a possible stand-in for Donahue. Ward went on the say that the job would have to be posted. “This is not something we can just hand to someone,” said Ward, who added that she was only an option.
Bourcy accused Ward and Donahue of putting the “cart ahead of the horse.”
She said, “Why did we talk to one person when this job isn’t even open... I’m upset by this. I don’t understand why people know about a job opening when it’s not even there yet.”
Schindler agreed with Bourcy and Cyr, adding, “Too much talk has pitted people against one another.... What’s frustrating for me is the individual politicking and calling around.”

Donahue talkes a practic walk up the Klondike Highway after work last week. He walked from Skagway to Dawson last year to get ready for his big cross-continent walk. Jeff Brady

This “talk” had been brought up earlier in the meeting when dealing with the Skagway Signage Report. Some expressed concern over an apparent lack of discipline on Donahue’s part by speaking of board matters privately with members of the city council. (See City Digest)
It became clear at this point that the concerns being voiced amongst the board had less to do with approving a leave of absence and more to do with concerns that Donahue was circumventing the desires of the board by having private conversations about the potential job opening. Some on the board were also concerned that Donahue intended these private conversations to sway the opinions of board members to favor his leave of absence.
Anxiety over these other issues led to reluctance by some board members to approve the leave of absence.
Cyr said she would find it easier to approve the leave if Donahue were going to Nepal on vacation.
“If it is O.K. to go to Nepal, it’s no different than going on the walk,” said Henry. “The same preparations are necessary.”
Board member Jim Corless agreed and said, “A leave of absence is a leave of absence.”
Corless said he also saw the walk as a benefit to the community and that he saw the request as simply an employee “asking us for time off for this personal growth activity.”
For one of the few times during the dialog the entire board agreed, and admitted that there were obviously two distinct subjects being discussed. “I’m having a hard time separating the two issues,” said Schindler.
“It’s hard for me because you’re so impassioned about it,” said Cyr, addressing Donahue. “I’m worried that you’re trying to clear your plate.”
“I don’t feel like were at an automatic time right now,” said Bourcy. “I’m worried about the (CVB’s) ability to run.”
Donahue pointed out that it was his heart attack in late 2003 that originally gave him the idea for the walk.
Despite his medical leave at that time, “We didn’t miss a beat,” he said, adding that modern technology such as e-mail would keep him in touch with the board during his absence. “I am going to be available to you,” he said.
Board member Jim Sager added, “It might be tough, but life is not a bowl of cherries,” and pointed to set of leave of absence guidelines from a college website that met Donahue’s goals.
Things started to get even more heated at this point with Schindler citing concern over Donahue’s job performance.
“We can’t make decisions based on frustrations,” he said. He added that he did not want to base his decision on the leave of absence on these other issues.
Bourcy agreed and both suggested that the final decision be put off, but Donahue pleaded and said, “A lot of people are waiting to hear from my board. I would love to see a vote today so we can move on with the transition.”
Board member Chris Valentine said, “We should be strong enough to move the board along.... I think we’re better than just falling apart.”
The struggle between board members, deciding whether or not to postpone the vote, continued for some time with Bourcy again expressing her anger over the job position being leaked before a decision had even been made. She said, “I’ve heard all over town, it’s Cynde.”
Corless answered back, “I see nothing sinister in this.” He continued that the information about the job probably leaked when Buckwheat was discussing his walk in casual dialogue with interested persons.
“It just came up in conversation,” said Donahue.
The stress of the meeting was having an obvious impact on Donahue, who was visibly shaken by the table banter. With a red face and tearing eyes he described the circumstances surrounding his heart failure.
“I was motivated by my experience on the (hospital) table,” he said. “They had the equipment and a volunteer who knew how to use it.”
Donahue received care in Juneau with modern equipment that Skagway’s Dahl Memorial Clinic is currently lacking. This equipment was a large factor in his survival.
He continued, “Why don’t we have that (equipment) here? That’s my motivation. I want to help the clinic. It’s a benefit for everyone. It’s not anything else. My motivation is pure. Some people are tainting it and it’s making me mad.”
Responding to the emotional outburst, Bourcy said, “I feel that this is the kind of pressure I was talking about.”
Schindler then suggested that the decision be made later in the day as it was 2:30 p.m. and the meeting had begun at 9 a.m. “I need to go for a walk,” he said.
All agreed to reconvene at 4 p.m. to make a final decision.
“That was a great way to get some fresh air,” said Cyr when the meeting got back underway.
Sager made a motion to support Donahue’s request, with Schindler seconding the motion. It passed unanimously prompting Donahue to leap from his chair shouting with joy and handing out hugs to some of the more reluctant members of his board.
The board will now focus on “fast tacking” some important items before Donahue’s departure in the fall that were raised during the six-hour meeting.
Cyr envisions the board and Donahue working together in the future in a way that she calls “efficient and proper.”

School Board adopts budget without more cuts

City concerned about escalating food program costs

That growling you may have heard coming from Skagway City Council members on March 29 wasn’t from their tummies missing a meal at the dinner hour, but from a look at the escalating cost of the school food services budget.
Still, after its annual grilling by the mayor and council members, the Skagway City School Board unanimously adopted its $1.685 million budget without changes.
The proposed FY 2006 budget, based on an enrollment of 105 students, includes a total city funding request of $1.077 million, about $7,000 less than the district received for 2005. The actual request from the city for the school’s operating fund is more, $868,778 compared with $841,452 in 2005, but there were no capital project requests and a reduction of $7,344 for food services costs.
The food services program received the most discussion in the work session with city officials. Although the city will be contributing less, the overall cost of the food service program is increasing from $110,334 to $123,266, in part due to the addition of a half-time employee who became eligible for benefits because she worked elsewhere in the school.
Mayor Bourcy reminded the district that it initially came to the city for a $36,000 request to start a food services program four years ago, and the cost keeps going up. “I don’t see where this ends,” Bourcy said.
School Superintendent Michael Dickens said the previous adminstration made a mistake in telling the city that the food service program would eventually be self-sufficient. Those programs never make money, he said, but a better “e-rate” has reduced the local contribution needed.
“It will never be something that is self-sustaining,” Dickens added, but food service is supported by many cities and school boards to support good nutrition for their children, which helps their learning. “A lot of research supports it.”
Bourcy said his biggest concern is that the school district is not “holding the line” like other city departments, which saw 20 percent reductions in many areas last year.
Dickens and board members countered that the district has “saved dramatically” in cutting down on fuel and electricity consumption, and reducing other building maintenance and supply costs.
School Board President Chris Ellis told the council there were substantial cuts in programs and costs last year.
“I have no serious issues with the budget,” Bourcy added, after members went through it page by page, “but it would be nice for the Council to have some wiggle room.”
Much of the overall increase in the budget comes from escalating employee costs in the state’s underfunded PERS/TRS programs. Dickens said the state has moved the cap amount for city-funded districts like Skagway, deflecting state contributions.
“My main concern is the trend of the state passing the buck,” added Bourcy.
The mayor urged board members to come back with a “worst case scenario” budget, but in regular session an hour later, the board decided to pass the budget without changes.
“You guys have been working really hard to cut this budget,” board member Chris Maggio told Dickens and district business services director Kathy Pierce.
Dickens said they can take another look at the budget to “find some savings” and resubmit it to the city at a later date. If the Council wants to reduce the food program contribution, then it will be up to them, board members said.
Joanne Korsmo said they were not there to dwell on “sins of the past (regarding how the information was presented four years ago). The food service program is important ... something that was brought on because it was desperately needed.”
Ellis added that the district has taken hits due to reduced enrollment (a loss of 31 students since 2001), adding that they no longer have community education or music programs, and, without grants, would not have foreign language or physical education teachers this year.
“We used to have a teacher for every grade,” Ellis said. “... I think our minimum is met, as far as education goes.... I don’t see how you can cut more without impacting it. Our core, we’ve kept intact.”
The budget is built on the assumption that the state foundation formula will increase from $4,576 to $4,919 per student. The school funding legislation, HB 1, was moving forward until the Senate Finance Committee attached PERS/TRS riders to the bill, which upset House members, said Dickens, who had testified for the bill in Juneau last month.
Dickens said all school budgets in the state are being written around the $4,919 figure. Skagway also relies on a waiver that moves the count period from the end of October into mid-September, to better reflect its seasonal shifts in enrollment. Without the waiver and the addition of a few foreign exchange students, the district could have been in serious financial trouble this year, Dickens said.
The school’s winter enrollment was as low as 94-95 students, noted board secretary Debbie Knorr.
“I thought the work session, all in all, went pretty well for us,” Ellis concluded.


HALL OF FAME SMILE –Skagway’s Connie Conard beams after the surprise announcement in Soldotna that she had been named to the Alaska Women's Bowlers Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of JoAnn Arnold


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