The local teachers union has made rare common cause with a charter school: They are pressing to have the Los Angeles school district — not the charter — pay for costly retiree benefits that are due to teachers who worked at the charter.
A formal grievance against L.A. Unified, filed recently by United Teachers Los Angeles, is the latest twist involving a group of teachers from El Camino Real Charter High School. It highlights the complicated relationship between charters and the traditional school system — and potentially serious financial issues for each.
The dispute also is one more headache for the Woodland Hills charter, whose founding principal is under fire for his spending practices.
The disagreement means that nine veteran El Camino teachers are in limbo over who will pay for retiree health benefits that are estimated to cost the employer $250,000 to $300,000 per worker. El Camino wanted so badly to get out from under this obligation that they offered teachers up to $30,000 in cash if they would return to L.A. Unified just long enough to retire over there.
The district cried foul, refusing to process the paperwork for the benefits.
That's when the union emerged as an unlikely ally — for the charter school.
Charters are managed independently of the local school district and exempt from some education regulations. The vast majority are non-union—and the teachers union and pro-charter forces were the major combatants in recent school board elections. The union also has joined many district officials in opposing a proposed, massive charter expansion that, along with other factors, could threaten the district's solvency, according to an independent panel of experts.
But El Camino is unionized, which is a main reason the teachers have retiree health benefits in the first place. These benefits help cover what isn't handled by Medicare, the federal health program for retirees.
Union president Alex Caputo-Pearl said his organization would fight "to enforce our members' rights under the UTLA/LAUSD contract." He noted that the district agreed to give El Camino teachers up to five years to return to L.A. Unified after El Camino became a charter.
That five years just ended, but was still in force when the teachers sought to return.
The district counters that teachers had a right to return to work for L.A. Unified, but it's unfair for them to return just long enough to file for retirement.
School board member Monica Ratliff said she would be "far more sympathetic" if the teachers "actually came back to the district to become district employees and serve our district prior to retiring." Or if the charter operators had been willing to pay that $30,000 to the district — to help defray L.A. Unified's increased costs.
The issue became public in April after The Times wrote about the $30,000 bonus. In previous years, the district had apparently allowed at least 49 teachers from El Camino and eight other unionized charters to send their retirees back to L.A. Unified, according to information released as part of a public-records act request.
The charters (or their teachers) that most aggressively pursued this strategy have been El Camino (21, including this year's group), Granada Hills Charter High School (13) and Birmingham Community Charter High School (12).
Qualifying non-teaching employees also have taken advantage of the return-to-retire strategy.
Most, if not all, of the affected teachers qualified for lifetime benefits by the "rule of 80," which combines their years of teaching plus their age at retirement. All worked the majority of their careers for L.A. Unified rather than for a charter school.
So why not split the cost of the benefits for these teachers between the charter and district?
L.A. Unified is unwilling to do that because charters opted out of the district benefits system. The charters were unwilling to share the overall burden of providing benefits to current and past district employees, so it's now the district that feels less inclined to share.
The cost of benefits has become a problem for the nation's second-largest school system. Overall, L.A. Unified's unfunded liability for employee benefits escalated to $13.6 billion earlier this year.
Taking on the El Camino teachers would add an estimated $2.5 million to $4.2 million to that deficit—or, alternatively, add to El Camino's financial burden.
Whatever happens, El Camino remains on the hook for most of its former L.A. Unified workers, a potential liability of more than $34 million, according to the school.
El Camino also has had to confront spending on another front.
The Los Angeles Daily News reported that the El Camino governing board has hired a private investigator to review the spending of founding Principal David Fehte, including for such things as wine, first-class air travel and pricey hotel rooms.
Fehte has denied wrongdoing and said he "inadvertently" charged about $6,100 in personal expenses on his school credit card. He said he reimbursed the school as soon as these charges were pointed out to him.
Some of the expenses were incurred while Fehte was moonlighting as a college basketball talent scout for the San Antonio Spurs, according to the paper.
El Camino has been generally regarded as well run before and after becoming a charter. A team of students from the campus won the 2014 national Academic Decathlon.