Los Angeles school officials constantly warn of a looming financial crisis, but they've taken on a new expense as if there were money to spare: health benefits for about 4,200 more part-time workers.
The Board of Education last week voted to extend the benefits to teacher assistants, playground aides and others. All are members of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, which is expected to be a significant player in the March 2017 elections. The union's win comes as the season nears for candidate endorsements.
The new benefits will take effect next year and will initially cost an estimated $16 million annually.
Although the action attracted little attention, a few critics questioned the spending priorities of the seven-member board, which approved the deal without discussion or opposition in less than a minute.
School board President Steve Zimmer hailed the board's decision as "the path toward a new day for our employees," and then moved quickly to the next agenda item.
He elaborated in a statement, released by the union, that called the affected employees "some of our most dedicated and selfless workers who directly interact with students on a day-to-day basis" and said, "We need to make sure that the women and men who take care of LAUSD's children by day can care for their own families by night."
Union leaders were so confident of passage that they did not speak at the meeting. In the statement, Local 99 Executive Director Max Arias said his members include many parents of L.A. Unified students "who have historically suffered from unequal access to quality healthcare."
"By finally including these workers in benefits enjoyed by all other district employees, LAUSD recognizes their important contributions to student learning and the impact of good jobs on our local communities," he added.
While Zimmer has consistently supported comprehensive employee benefits and broader access to healthcare, he also faces a tough, high-cost reelection campaign.
The same is likely true for incumbent Monica Garcia, who has been at odds with Zimmer politically but shares tight bonds with the Service Employees union.
"I am proud to stand with every employee — from our bus drivers to our cafeteria workers, from our maintenance professionals to classroom support staff," Garcia said in a statement that the union provided.
At other recent meetings, district officials have asserted that the school system is on a potential collision course with bankruptcy. The cost of benefits has been cited as a contributing factor, especially because many retirees are eligible and the benefits are generous compared with those offered by other employers.
"The school system does not exist as an expensive employment program for adults," said Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a conservative think tank based in San Francisco. "Diverting money from the classroom to new benefits for part-time workers demonstrates that the LAUSD school board has its priorities mixed up."
The vote on benefits is consistent, however, with the political leanings of board members, who have expressed sympathy for the burdens faced by low-wage workers.
The union said that negotiations over the additional coverage began in 2014, and it insisted the action was unrelated to elections. Even so, Local 99 has long proved a reliable and generous supporter of incumbents, who have delivered through actions that supporters said also benefited students.
In 2014, the board put the district out front in a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Some Local 99 members' hourly wages nearly doubled.
After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, the district hired hundreds of unarmed security aides — all union members.
In 2007, the district granted benefits to part-time cafeteria workers, throwing the cafeteria budget into a deficit that must be supplemented from the general fund. Later, food workers' jobs and hours expanded when the district began requiring that federally funded breakfasts be brought to all students in their classrooms, whether they ate them or not.
Because many union members also are L.A. Unified parents, they are regarded as doubly motivated voters who could influence others in low-turnout school board elections.
The union did not get all it wanted: The benefits package isn't as generous as those for some other employees.
Teacher assistants who work 800 hours or more in a year — the equivalent of 20 40-hour weeks — in any one assignment will receive health, vision and dental benefits with no premiums in the following year, but they will have to pay for family members.
School program workers, community representatives and school supervision aides must work 1,000 hours in order for the district to pay half the cost of their premiums the following year.
"This agreement represents a significant victory in extending benefits to employees who had been unfairly shut out," said union spokeswoman Blanca Gallegos.
4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background and reaction.