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Teacher Kicks Off Budgetary ‘Contest’ : Goal Is to Obtain Lifetime Health Coverage for School Employees

Times Staff Writer

A Culver City teacher, hoping to obtain lifetime health benefits for school employees, started a contest this week to find money for the benefits in the Culver City Unified School District budget.

The goal of the contest is to find $300,000, the amount it would cost to pay for lifetime health coverage for all Culver City school employees, said Howard Bennett, chairman of the School Employees’ Assn. for Lifetime Health Coverage, a group formed by Bennett. Under current contracts, health benefits end at age 65.

The contest, which is open to anyone with a money-saving idea, will award prizes ranging from a weekend in Las Vegas to a garbage disposal and other prizes donated by local businesses, said Bennett, who formed the association this year. He would not provide specific membership figures, but said it was “in the hundreds.”

Decided on His Own

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Bennett, an English teacher at Culver City High School, said he decided on his own to start the contest after the teachers’ bargaining representative, the Culver City Teachers Assn., failed to win lifetime health benefits in its contract negotiations with the district last month.

The Culver City Teachers Assn. ousted the previous bargaining agent, the Culver City Federation of Teachers, in May on a campaign platform that promised a 10% raise in salaries and lifetime health benefits. Earlier this month, teachers voted to ratify a contract that included a 6% raise and an agreement to study the possibility of a new city property tax to pay for the benefits.

Bennett, who campaigned vigorously in May for the Culver City Teachers Assn., angered federation leaders earlier this year when he sent cartoons to fellow teachers, characterizing the union as being asleep on the job and making false promises.

Bennett now says the Culver City Teachers Assn. has broken its campaign promise to win increased health benefits and has “betrayed the issue.”

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Certain of Money

He said he is convinced that the district has enough money in its $18.5-million annual budget to start providing health coverage to retired teachers, and he thinks the contest will expose it.

“I feel that the school district is a master at the art of money camouflage,” he said. “When you have ($18.5 million), don’t tell me you can’t find 1 or 2% of that (to spend on the benefits). If there is a will, they can find more than that.”

Ralph R. Villani, assistant superintendent for personnel services, laughed when he was told of the contest. Villani, the district’s chief negotiator, however, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on it.

Jacques Bernier, negotiator for the Culver City Teachers Assn., said the association made a proposal last month that teachers be insured through the state Public Employees Retirement System, which would require lifetime coverage, but the district rejected the idea.

The association would rather find an alternative source of income for the benefits, such as the proposed property tax, rather than have teachers pay for it by accepting lower salary increases, he said.

The association, however, would be “interested in anything that Howard (Bennett) could show us is waste.”

Work Through Officials

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David Mielke, president of the rival Culver City Federation of Teachers, said he encourages Bennett’s efforts to win lifetime health benefits, but he thinks teachers should work through their elected representatives.

“I do think we need lifetime health benefits, but I think the way to get it is through the collective bargaining process,” he said.

Mielke, who was on the federation’s negotiating team last year said that although he supports lifetime health benefits, Bennett’s time would perhaps be better spent trying to get more education money from the state. He said about 10% of the 1,000 or so school districts in California provide lifetime benefits for its teachers.

“I don’t think the contest will find the kind of money hiding there to provide lifetime health benefits for all current and retired teachers,” he said.

Bennett, however, said that the city of Culver City currently pays the full premium for health coverage of both its active and retired employees. “Why should teachers be different?” he asked.

Winners and results of the contest will be announced after the Christmas Day deadline, he said.


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