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Helping the College, or Just Themselves?

September 14, 2007

The dispute boils down to what the definition of "fair" is.

For six of seven trustees of the College of the Siskiyous, fair means each member receives the same health benefits as the others. For everyone else at the college -- all faculty, staff and adjuncts, about 175 people -- fair means health insurance for all, especially those employees (like adjuncts) who work under 20 hours a week and don't qualify for the benefits.

This month, the Board of Trustees at the California college voted 6-1 to expand health coverage to its two members who do not currently receive benefits, the result of a policy that continued insurance only for those who were elected before 1996. Faculty and staff unanimously opposed the measure -- which needed to pass the board by a vote of 7-0 and will be reheard next month when only a simple majority is needed -- through the college's three representative bargaining groups.

The trustees argue that providing health benefits to members of the board -- many of whom are retired and most of whom have other part-time jobs or are self-employed -- is essential for attracting candidates whenever a seat opens up. Those opposing the expansion of health coverage, who say they are against any benefits for board members, believe that being a trustee should be a privilege in itself rather than a collection of perks. They also disagree, citing recent elections with multiple candidates, that benefits are necessary to entice candidates.

Members of the board currently receive $240 a month plus reimbursements for work-related travel, in addition to the health benefits that five of the trustees have. In California, community college districts are unusual in that they are authorized by the state (in section 53201 of the government code) to offer benefits to board members. "That clearly is different from most other states," said J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees.

In 2005, according to Cindra Smith, director of education services for the Community College League of California, 68 of 72 districts provided health benefits to trustees. Boards must vote for and approve such measures, which have caused controversy in the past and which in this case is sparking an uproar at the college, in Weed, Calif.

"There is no equity because many folks on this campus are working substantially harder than board members ... and they’re not getting those same health benefits," said Michael Graves, a computer science and business instructor who is also president of the Academic Senate. In that capacity, he sits on the President's Advisory Council, which is part of the college's shared governance structure.

The debate comes at a time when community colleges, universities and other public institutions have begun seeking ways to reduce spiraling health care costs. Describing the college's old system half a dozen years ago as "the Cadillac of health benefit packages" -- health, dental and vision at no cost -- Graves said that the 3 percent in premiums now deducted from each paycheck disproportionately affects lower-paid staff.

The meeting where the vote took place was filled with opponents of the benefits package. "A reasonable presumption is that citizens run for office as a way to serve their community, not as a way to get health care," said David Clarke, an instructor who is president of the Faculty Association, in a statement he read aloud to the board.

Clarke said he was surprised when he first heard that board members get any benefits at all. A 1996 vote changed the benefits so that only members already elected could continue to receive coverage; in 2004, the board tried and failed to expand insurance again to all members in a measure similar to the one voted on last week. Some board members allege that they were misled into approving the 1996 policy, fearing that the law authorizing benefits had changed.

Faculty opponents dispute this assertion. Clarke stated at last week's meeting: "Three years ago, when the board last considered and rejected making this change, there was no mention of a misunderstanding surrounding the original decision. People who attended the meeting have no memory of such a discussion, nor is it reflected in the minutes."

The acrimony surrounding this issue is somewhat unusual for the college's board proceedings. Like other colleges in the California system, it is guided by a shared governance system that seeks input from all constituencies. "By the time something gets through to the board, it’s pretty much been through the mill," Clarke said in an interview. This time, critics contend that the board has ignored their complaints as presented by the president, who by the traditions of governance brings the positions of the college's constituencies (via the Advisory Council) to board meetings.

For many, regardless of the actual intent of the trustees, the vote retains a tinge of self-interest.

"If the board is eligible for health benefits through the college, I would say that creates some interesting governance issues for the board when they vote on that issue -- because obviously they are eligible," Brown said.

No member of the Board of Trustees could be contacted for comment, and President Dave Pelham was out of the office on Thursday.

 

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