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Crusader for Teachers’ Health Plan Won’t Quit Until He Wins : Culver City: Howard Bennett, who first appealed for lifetime benefits in 1987, was back before the school board--this time with 60 supporters.

COMMUNITY CORRESPONDENT

Nearly three years after he began a one-man campaign for lifetime health benefits for Culver City teachers, Howard Bennett was back this week where he started--in front of the city’s Board of Education.

In June, 1987, he stood alone before the board and presented a petition for lifetime benefits with 230 signatures he had collected from fellow teachers. His appeal was dismissed as a matter best left to school district and union negotiators.

Although his Tuesday appeal that the district buy lifetime health coverage from the state’s Public Employees Retirement System was similarly dismissed, the presence of 60 teachers, former teachers and other school employees standing behind him illustrated the advances made by his relentless and often abrasive campaign.

“I’m hanging in here, if it takes forever,” said Bennett, 60, after his presentation at Linwood Howe School. “I could have retired last year and I didn’t.”

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Bennett, a lanky, bespectacled English teacher at Culver City High School, has waged a battle using cartoons and letters that pointedly attack negotiators from the district and from the district’s two competing teachers unions for failing to provide lifetime coverage.

He threw his support, and his cartoons, behind the Culver City Teachers Assn. in its 1988 bid to oust the Culver City Federation of Teachers as the teachers’ bargaining representative.

The association won, but it has yet to deliver on a campaign promise for lifetime benefits, and Bennett is threatening to turn around and campaign against them next year.

Later in 1988, Bennett held a “Find the Money Contest” in which entrants gave ideas on where the district could save money to pay for lifetime benefits. He got merchants to donate prizes for the contest. The winning ideas, which ranged from selling unused district property to reducing the district’s payroll tax liability by redirecting a portion of the employees pretax income, have not been implemented.

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“I’ve antagonized both bargaining agents to the point that you have to pick a number to get in line to hate me,” he said.

But Bennett, a Playa del Rey resident and former competitive ocean swimmer who was one of the early leaders of the campaign to stop dumping of raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay, has also picked up some friends along the way.

His crusade originally was to win lifetime benefits for teachers, but it now includes all school employees and retired teachers. The group he organized to support his campaign now lists more than 500 members, he said.

Bennett is a staunch advocate of the Public Employees Retirement System, which the city uses to buy health insurance for its employees, and which has a requirement that retirees, as well as employees, be allowed to participate.

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Retired teachers’ health benefits from the district expire when they reach 65, and district officials have balked at cost of insuring present retirees. Bennett said, however, that he will not be satisfied with any lifetime benefit plan that does not include the insurance.

“We’re standing on their shoulders, although we can’t see them,” said Bennett of the retired teachers. “What benefits we have, what coverage we have, is because of them.”

School employees are the only public employees in Culver City who are not eligible for lifetime coverage, Bennett said. He invited Culver City Personnel Director Gordon Youngs to the board meeting to explain how the city saves money by buying coverage from the state retirement system, despite the high initial cost of covering retirees.

Youngs told the board that the city government, which employs about the same number of people as the school district, saved money on all of its health benefits when it switched to the Public Employees Retirement System from a private insurer in 1986--even though it meant extending coverage to all retired city workers who were still living.

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“If we were doing (switching over to the public employees system) today, the cost is still more effective,” Youngs said.

Benefit negotiations for the 1990-91 school year have already started, although the union will probably not come back with a proposed package until September, he said.

Even if they are not offered this year, Bennett said he is confident that teachers will eventually win lifetime health benefits.


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