Charter school staff face dilemma on benefits


Three local charter schools, including two that are widely acclaimed, face a potential exodus of teachers and others who are fearful of losing generous Los Angeles Unified School District health benefits.

This unexpected dilemma is being forced on school staffs at Granada Hills High, Palisades High and Pacoima Elementary. They must either leave those campuses or surrender lifetime health benefits they have earned through L.A. Unified.

Citing long-term worries over the cost of benefits for retirees, district officials issued an ultimatum in mid-April. Non-teaching employees have until Friday to leave the charters or lose their retiree health benefits. Teachers have until May 15.


The affected employees can retire now if they already qualify for retiree benefits. If they don’t, they must work at a traditional school, where, because of a hiring freeze, they are likely to bump someone else out of a job.

The returning employees would exacerbate pending layoffs in L.A. Unified, where more than 5,000 workers could lose jobs due to $596.1 million in cuts from a nearly $6-billion general fund.

There’s also a cost to maintaining the status quo for the charter school employees.

According to a recent actuarial study, each year an employee works adds about $5,000 to the district’s unfunded future obligations to retirees, said chief risk officer George Tischler.

As a result, the district believes it makes financial sense to reduce the number of people who are eligible. L.A. Unified has always retained the option of discontinuing health benefits for the charters, even though those schools have paid their share of ongoing premiums for current and retired workers.

“As our insurance rates continue to increase, it is likely and understandable that a charter would decide to no longer buy benefits from us and potentially leave us with an obligation,” district chief operating officer Dave Holmquist said. “And if the charter goes out of business, what happens?”

Tischler added that district layoffs would make it harder to manage special arrangements with charters.

The district has not been consistent when it comes to trimming the rolls for benefits. In late 2007, the school board -- against the recommendation of staff -- extended health benefits to thousands of part-time cafeteria workers under pressure from unions.

But charter workers are not on the district payroll. Charter schools are independently managed and typically handle their own benefits, but a handful have had a different arrangement.

These three schools were traditional campuses that converted to charter status. But they remained affiliated with the district’s teachers union and also kept -- and paid for -- the benefits package. These employees assumed the arrangement would continue, as did the teachers union.

“This came out of nowhere,” said Tom Alfano, a United Teachers Los Angeles representative. “This was dropped on us at the very last minute. There was never a negotiation.” Alfano insisted that the union is ready to work through all the district’s concerns, and that it’s worth the effort.

“Granada is the best high school the district has,” said Alfano, who represents teachers at that school. “Their act is so together.”

Granada Hills has scored in the top 20% of California high schools on state tests with nearly one-third of its students from low-income families. Enrollment at the school has risen steadily to 4,156 students during a period when overall district enrollment has declined. Palisades has performed comparably. Test scores at Pacoima are low but rose substantially last year.

The district’s expectation is that many employees will retire.

That may be the best option for 75-year-old Betty Zigler, who manages an independent study program at Granada Hills.

“From the first day I’ve been there, 22 years ago, I thought I died and went to heaven,” Zigler said. She wants to keep working, but without retiree benefits, she would lose dental and vision coverage and she’ll pay more for prescription drugs and other medical services, including her husband’s pending heart-valve operation.

Granada Hills could look substantially different next year: 88 out of about 180 teachers will have to leave or lose retiree health benefits. The same is true for 68 of 124 teachers at Palisades. Overall, more than 700 employees stand to lose benefits, including non-teachers.

Two other charter elementary schools, Montague in Pacoima and Santa Monica Boulevard Community in east Hollywood, also are affected. But most teachers at these schools already surrendered their right of return to the district. Their choice is starker: Retire now, if eligible, or lose the benefits.

The charter schools would, if necessary, develop their own health plans, but nothing is likely to match what employees have with L.A. Unified.

At 55, Palisades physical education teacher Pamela Harbour isn’t ready or financially able to retire. She’s also been looking forward to sharing the campus with her daughter, who will be attending Palisades next year.

But she and her daughter have had expensive health issues in recent years.

“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.