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School Board Under Fire on Benefits Plan : Education: Candidates say a proposal to give trustees lifetime health care is inappropriate in a time of cutbacks. Five current and about seven past members would be eligible.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several challengers in next week’s Lynwood Unified School board election have attacked a district plan to grant free lifetime health benefits to board members.

The challengers said the plan is an outrageous example of the board’s self-serving attitude.

“Doesn’t this shock you to death,” said candidate Cynthia Green-Geter. “I would expect them to do something ridiculous, but this has gone beyond ridiculous. This is a clear reflection of where their priorities are. It is obvious that the children are not No. 1.”

Board President Thelma Calvin-Williams said she asked district staff to look into state government codes that allow elected members of boards to receive free medical, dental, surgical, and disability benefits.

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If adopted, all five current board members and about seven past members would be eligible for the benefits which, once received, would be irrevocable. The cost of such a policy to the district is unknown, board members said.

The board was scheduled to discuss the new benefits plan at its Oct. 22 meeting, but tabled the item without discussion until after the Nov. 5 election. President Calvin-Williams said that the discussion was postponed to allow time for further research on the issue. Both she and veteran board member Richard Armstrong said that they would approve such a policy if state codes allow.

Calvin-Williams would not say why she favored the new benefits proposal, however. Armstrong said he thought the policy would be “a nice gesture.”

Board members Calvin-Williams, Armstrong and Willard Hawn Reed are up for reelection Tuesday. Five challengers also are vying for the three board seats on the ballot.

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Candidate Claude Law called the proposed benefits change just plain wrong. Challenger Ignacio Cortez said that the proposal indicates to him that some of the incumbents do not expect to win reelection and are preparing for the future. Candidate Errick Lee said that the money should be used to pay for books, other educational materials and heating and air-conditioning in the classrooms.

“We have no idea how much this could cost,” Lee said. “This is for lifetime benefits.”

Supt. Audrey Clarke said it was unclear how much the proposed benefit plan would cost, but that it would not be paid for at the expense of student services.

The California government code says that former elected officials who served after Jan. 1, 1981, can receive benefits if they served at least 12 years or completed one or more terms.

But board members Rachel Chavez and Reed said that they would be reluctant to support a policy that gave board members advantages not available to other district employees.

“I’m not sure how we could ever explain this,” Chavez said. “The challengers are right, it is self-serving. It’s embarrassing.”

Board member Joe Battle could not be reached for comment.

According to education officials, most school board members receive the same benefits as other employees. In most districts, board members can continue to receive benefits after leaving the board, as long as they pay for them. Montebello Unified School District board members receive free lifetime health benefits if they have served at least 12 years, however.

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In Long Beach Unified, an employee who is 55 or older and has worked at least 17 years can receive free medical and dental benefits until age 67, when they must begin paying.

Downey Unified school board members must pay for any coverage they receive after leaving the board, Supt. Edward Sussman said. “Generally, you will find that in most district board members receive the same benefits as employees,” Sussman said. “When they leave, they are just like anyone else.”

Lynwood Board President Calvin-Williams said she asked staff to look into lifetime benefits after the issue was discussed at during a national meeting of school board members. A district official said Calvin-Williams was apparently concerned about her colleague, 73-year-old Armstrong, who after 17 years on the board is expected to face strong opposition, in next week’s election. If defeated, Armstrong, who four years ago had heart bypass surgery, would have to pay expensive premiums to retain health benefits.

Calvin-Williams said Armstrong had nothing to do with her request that the board research the policy. “I never thought of that,” she said. “That’s a new one to me.”

Lynwood Unified School District

Enrollment: 15,500

Area served: Lynwood

On the ballot: eight candidates for three seats

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INCUMBENTS

Richard Armstrong

Board member since 1975

Age: 74

Profession: semiretired accountant

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “We’ve managed to maintain a positive balance in the bank account, and the district is well managed. We are in good shape. The biggest issue is year-round education. There is no other way for us to go except year-round. I’ve talked to the kids, teachers and administrators, and they are not opposed to it . . . My qualifications include being on the school board for 17 years and active in the community for 43 years, ever since we’ve lived here. The thing that I’m most proud of is the large number of students (in the district) who received scholarships for college.”

Thelma Calvin-Williams

Board member since 1983

Age: would not give age

Profession: elementary school principal

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “I don’t think there are any issues. We’ve accomplished a lot as a school board. Year-round schools have eliminated overcrowding. We’ve reduced our dropout rate. We’ve attempted to make our campuses as safe as possible by putting sheriff’s deputies on campus. We’ve computerized about every school.” She said she takes pride in the district’s drug education program and its program encouraging students to study math and science. She said a new high school will soon be under construction, and she defended building a new administration building.

Willard Hawn Reed

Board member since 1985

Age: 73

Profession: retired engineering professor and college dean

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “I believe in year-round education. I think that the district and the students--when we finally get it all shaped up--will benefit greatly by it. We’re coming into it by necessity.” He said the new administration building would pay for itself through increased efficiency and eliminating rent payments. Only legal complications prevented the district from building a new high school before the administration building, he said. Reed is most proud of his organization and support of the Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement project, a statewide program to motivate students in math and science.

CHALLENGERS

Ignacio Cortez

Age: 22

Profession: maintenance worker and real estate salesman

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “My youth is an asset. I can relate with the students. I go to many of the student meetings at the high school. I have good communication with students. They really tell me what’s going on. A lot of parents complain because they don’t know what’s going on in the district, especially the Hispanic families.” He said year-round schools were set up improperly, but does not oppose them in principle. “A lot of rooms are not air-conditioned, and that’s a big problem for kids. That should be addressed. Also, we need to get more qualified teachers.”

Cynthia Green-Geter

Age: declined to give age

Profession: building rehabilitation specialist

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “The board has constructed a new 86,000-square-foot office building, but after eight years they are still at the drawing table for relieving overcrowding, which is a clear reflection that the priorities of this board are out of order. The children should be No. 1. The students don’t have books and are not having their needs met. I don’t agree with the year-round school. The district didn’t include parents in the decision to go year-round.” She said she would bring to the board both a business background and experience as a grade school and college teacher.

Saul Lankster

Age: 43

Profession: television producer, former high school teacher

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “The school system is screwed up. They don’t have an (adequate) high school, and it is a shame. The facilities at Lynwood High are a joke. It would be an All-American city if the school system was turned around. The on-again, off-again year-round school system is another example that the school district needs new leadership.” He said his experience includes being a former high school teacher and president of the regional Crippled Children Parent Support Group. He also produces children’s television shows.

Claude Law

Age: 52

Profession: warehouse worker with Los Angeles County

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: “The citizens were not informed correctly about year-round schools. I would’ve met with the community in town hall-type meetings.” He said smaller class sizes are essential. “Some of the classes have been as large as 50 students. That’s not the complete climate for learning . . . I’ve been an active parent for over 15 years” on parent advisory committees and as chairman of the elementary, junior high and high school PTA. “I was against building an administration building before building a high school. The priorities were wrong.”

Errick Lee

Age: 26

Profession: bank operations supervisor and Lynwood Planning Commission member

Residence: Lynwood

Remarks: Lee graduated from Lynwood High eight years ago and said he has watched Lynwood schools decline steadily. He said the board’s poor judgment has resulted in low test scores and the loss of state funds, and has delayed construction of a new high school. “They build a new administration building, but they don’t build a new high school for the kids. We are forced to go to a year-round program because we don’t have a new high school. I’m not in favor of year-round schools . . . This board has always been a non-accessible board. If you’re an elected official, you’re supposed to answer to your constituents.”


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