Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 2, 2014

School board ponders health benefits for its own members

Most Santa Clara County districts offer them, but some say it's unseemly

by Chris Kenrick

The Palo Alto Board of Education is weighing the pros and cons of offering health benefits to its own members following a subcommittee's recommendation that such benefits be instituted.

Board members at a meeting last week were split on the proposal, with some arguing that offering health coverage could help reduce barriers to running for the school board and others saying the idea "doesn't sit well" and would create a conflict of interest.

Most school districts in Santa Clara County — 22 out of 32 total districts — do offer health benefits to school board members, according to a 2009 report by the Santa Clara County Grand Jury. Palo Alto is not among them.

But that could change under a recommendation from Palo Alto board members Heidi Emberling and Camille Townsend, who comprise the board's Policy Review Committee.

Though many school board members do not need the benefits and likely would decline them, health coverage is "significant for some board members," Townsend said.

She cited a school board member in another district who told her she would not have been able to run or serve on the board had it not been for the medical benefits.

"I do want people to run who do not have great personal wealth, so I think this is appropriate," Townsend said.

"But I am not interested in board members, once retired, getting (benefits)," she added.

In Palo Alto's most recent school board election in 2012, four candidates competed for three seats. In the previous school board election, two incumbents ran uncontested.

The filing deadline for this November's election, in which two board seats will be up for grabs, is Aug. 8.

Board Vice-President Melissa Baten Caswell asked about the economic impact of offering health coverage, adding: "If there are some barriers to people doing this job and we can knock down any of them without significant impact, it's in our interest."

The district currently pays between $7,200 and $8,000 a year per employee for health coverage, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers said. If the employee has two dependents, it can be as high as $20,000, he said.

Board member Dana Tom said he does not support adding health coverage for board members.

"It rubs me the wrong way," he said. "I know most districts provide it and I think most districts should not, and that's been our practice for as long as I've been on the board."

Board President Barb Mitchell said she's loathe to "limit the pool for good, qualified board members" but has mixed feelings about the proposal because of its potential to unduly influence board members' decisions on employee benefits.

"I see it as a conflict of interest for board members to be on the same plan that we're responsible for overseeing and making decisions on an annual basis for," Mitchell said. "It's difficult, but I prefer the independence."

The discussion on health benefits came late during the board meeting — around 11 p.m. — and is likely to be continued at a future meeting.

The 2009 Santa Clara County Grand Jury report, titled "Who Really Benefits from Education Dollars?," published at a time of deep funding cuts to public schools, questioned districts' spending on expenses like health benefits for school trustees.

"Despite the draconian budget cuts facing the schools in the coming months, there appears to be little inclination on the part of the districts to reduce or even limit the amount paid to superintendents/chancellors, assistant superintendents, presidents and boards of trustees," the grand jury report stated.

"It is difficult to understand or support continuing these generous administrative expenses while at the same time teachers, staff and programs are being cut."

Among K-12 districts in Santa Clara County, the report listed annual stipends for school boards from zero (in the Cambrian and Loma Prieta districts) to as high as $45,000, collectively, in the East Side Union High School District. Stipends to the Palo Alto school board, collectively, were listed in the grand jury report as $24,000, the same as in four other districts. Each Palo Alto school board member receives a stipend of $400 a month.

Annual medical expenditures for school board members were listed from zero (in Palo Alto, Cupertino, Loma Prieta, Los Altos, Morgan Hill, Mountain View-Whisman and Sunnyvale) to as high as $97,000 in the Fremont Union High School District.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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