Pecking Order

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November 8, 2005

Colleges everywhere are facing tough choices when it comes to paying for employees' health insurance, and many institutions that once covered all such costs are now making their professors and staff members share in the bills.

The choices being made at San Joaquin Delta College, however, are raising a few eyebrows and a few tempers at the Stockton, Calif., community college. Until this year, the college paid the full cost of health insurance for all full-time employees. Some employees are being forced to share in the costs this year, and college officials have signaled that they expect similar contributions from faculty members when a new contract is ironed out next year. But at the same time, the college's board has singled out a single group to continue to receive health insurance without having to pay a penny. That group is the board itself.

"This is an incredibly callous message to send to faculty and staff here," said Matt Wetstein, an instructor in political science who was among the first to notice the board's action -- and to criticize it. "What's most frustrating here is not to someone like me, who can deal with the financial hit better than some others. The real problem I have is with the classified and support staff, some of whom are barely above the poverty line."

While San Joaquin Delta has been paying for trustees' health insurance for as long as anyone there can remember, and the Community College League of California said that the benefit is a norm in the state, it is not a common practice nationally. "In most cases, trustees, as volunteers, receive no compensation in connection with their service. I don't believe this is occurring in any other state," said J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees.

The college referred questions about the policy to Kim Myers, vice president of human resources and employee relations, who said that other California districts do provide similar coverage for trustees.

Myers said that he "can understand the frustration" of faculty members over the issue, but he said it was appropriate for the college to reward its trustees, who he said "assume a huge fiduciary responsibility" when they are elected to the board. "Frankly we want to be able to attract people and make it an attractive position to run for."

He said that trustees were sensitive to the idea that their benefits might appear to be coming out of the same funds that are being stretched to pay for employee benefits. So the board voted last month to shift the source of its benefits out of the fund that pays for employee benefits. Instead, the money will come from the college's general fund.

The annual cost of trustee health insurance is $170,000, which covers the seven members of the board and also some retired board members who served long enough to maintain their benefits.

Joe Gonzales, president of the San Juan Delta College Teachers' Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said faculty members were upset to be told that they would probably be paying a few hundreds dollars a month next year for health insurance, while trustees have a free ride. "What's fair is fair," he said, "We're the ones who generate the funds by teaching. We should be compensated fully. Their job is to serve their constituents, not to gain and prosper."

Gonzales, who teaches English at the college, said the policy was particularly galling since adjunct faculty members receive no health insurance at all from the college "and they spend more time here than the trustees."


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