Gretchen Talley retired from the San Joaquin County Board of Education in June, but taxpayers could pay for her health care for life.
She's not alone.
Tina Skinner and Donna Settles served at least five terms each in the Galt Joint Union Elementary School District Board of Education. They get free health insurance coverage valued at $1,000 per month although they both left the board in 2010.
These women are among dozens of current and former school board trustees in Sacramento and San Joaquin counties receiving health benefits or stipends that total hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. Some critics say the benefits are too generous for what they consider part-time public service.
"As far as I'm concerned, that compensation flies in the face of everything that civic service is all about," San Joaquin Taxpayer's Association president David Renison said. "Board members get into these positions, and their benefits are hidden from the public."
Others say health benefits and other perks are only fair for the hard work and long hours expected of many trustees.
"People underestimate the number of hours a really diligent school board member puts in," Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon said. "The board members I've worked with put in 20 to 30 hours a week easily."
He believes offering monthly stipends and health care benefits encourages strong candidates to run for school board seats.
Two long-term trustees enjoy long-term benefits
Districts have the flexibility to provide a benefits package that can include health and life insurance, car, phone and office allowances, and other reimbursements.
Despite a San Joaquin Grand Jury report last year recommending that school districts do away with trustee compensation and benefits, the practice is still common — and costly. Locally, it ranges from $18,000 annually for Arcohe Union School District, where current trustees are not paid but can receive full health benefits, to nearby Elk Grove Unified where total compensation is roughly $135,000 per year. That does not include the three former trustees who receive health benefits.
Long-serving school board members in California elected or appointed before 1995 are eligible for lifetime health benefits if they have served more than one term.
In Galt elementary, under a local policy approved decades ago, the district pays $25,087 annually for combined health benefits for former trustees Skinner and Settles, as they both served 20 or more consecutive years on the board. While the district policy is no longer in place for future recipients, these women have been grandfathered in, according to Superintendent Karen Schauer.
They do not pay anything toward the benefits.
Skinner, who chose not to seek re-election after serving for 25 years, said the practice of offering health benefits to all its employees and trustees was common and wasn't a burden to the school budget at the time.
When Settles joined the board in 1990, she said the policy was already in place for not only trustees, but administrators and confidential employees who served or were employed by the district for 20 or more consecutive years with no break in service.
"In 1991, when health care started to become an issue, the school board eliminated the policy," Settles said, adding that former trustees are not the only people being compensated under the old rule.
In San Joaquin County, the Office of Education picks up the tab for health insurance premiums for former board members who served in office after Jan. 1, 1981 and who have served a total of 12 years or more. The state Education Code calling for this has since been repealed, so current or future board members will not be offered benefits once they are off the board, according to Janai Stanton, administrative services coordinator.
Talley, who represented the Tracy area, is the only former trustee who receives the benefit as she was on the board for 20 years. The benefits are anticipated to cost between $9,000 and $12,000 annually, the same amount current trustees receive toward their health care benefits.
Both San Joaquin County and Lodi Unified allow retiring school board members who have served just one full term in any time period to purchase the same health benefits available to district employees on a self-pay basis. There are none at this time.
In 2010-11, the San Joaquin County Grand Jury examined total compensation and recommended that school boards take a look at reducing stipends and even eliminating paid health care benefits in light of increased class sizes and teacher layoffs.
Former jury foreman Gene Andal said trustee benefits are an outrageous betrayal of public trust.
"The grand jury can only do so much, but there needs to be a public review. My position is, no benefits, period. They were originally paid by employers to employees to take care of their families. I don't think that applies to school board members," he said.
"You have to stop and think, 'What kind of things could that money be used for?' Ask the public whether they would want two part-time teachers or a full-time teacher, or give health insurance to their trustees?" he added. "I think I know what their answer would be."
Family health benefits
Some school board members and their families enjoy free medical insurance with no premium and a minimum co-pay — even if it's available from their regular employer.
In Lodi Unified, four trustees currently receive medical, vision, dental and life insurance, although some receive the benefits as former district employees. Two trustees opt only for dental and vision at a combined district cost of $161 per month.
This can cost taxpayers up to $85,704 annually, depending on the chosen health plan.
The amount the district contributes toward each benefit package depends on eligibility and also on the plan selected. The monthly cap ranges from $466 to $1,705 per month, depending on how many people in the household are insured. Any dollar amount above that cap is the board member's amount to pay.
In Galt, the high school district pays up to $575 per month towards benefits. At this time, only three board members take any kind of benefits. The cost is about $21,000 per year.
Lodi Unified and Galt Joint Union High School district officials declined to identify who receives the benefits, citing health privacy regulations.
All five members of the San Joaquin County Board of Education receive full health benefits. The annual cost is as much as $60,000, although Stanton stressed the figure is only approximate, depending on the health plan.
The benefits package for Sacramento County Office of Education school board trustees and their families costs about $10,500 per year.
The same medical, vision and life insurance benefits offered to Galt Joint Union Elementary School District employees are also afforded to trustees and their families at the same cost. No trustees are using those benefits, but all except trustee Wes Cagle have subscribed to the $123-a-month dental plan, which costs taxpayers about $6,000 per year.
In Acampo's Oak View Union School District, all five trustees have taken advantage of the benefits at a combined taxpayer cost of $50,000 per year.
The board's health benefit cap was reduced from $11,000 per person to $10,000 per person last year when district employees agreed to take two furlough days, Superintendent Beverly Boone said.
"The furlough was temporary for last year only, but the board reduction was permanent," she said.
In Herald's Arcohe Union School District, trustees Bobby Stepps and Michelle Neider are currently receiving full health benefits with a $750-a-month cap, although it does not cover their entire premium and they have to pick up a portion of their own co-pays, according to Superintendent Jim Shock.
Still, it costs taxpayers $18,000 annually.
Shock says it is worth it.
"I view these benefits as very small part of our budget and a good investment in proper governance," he said.
Before he was elected to the Galt elementary school board, John Gordon said he remembers questioning the stipends and benefits.
"Yet I was ignorant on the level of commitment needed to serve our students and families," he said. "Most people don't see what goes on behind the scenes."
But he doesn't don't feel it is fiscally responsible for districts to provide benefits after a trustee has left office.
"Once you're no longer in office, you shouldn't be compensated in any manner," he said.
Tracy Gross, who served one term on the Galt Joint Union High School board, agrees. She was unaware that some trustees receive benefits when they are no longer on the board.
"I do not receive anything. I don't feel they should get benefits after they step down, and question whether they should get anything while serving, either. That should not be their reason to serve," she said. "Guess we need to elect someone else before they reach the point of getting lifetime medical benefits."
Linda Gooden, a member of the Lodi Citizens in Action group, was also surprised that health benefits are offered to former trustees. And she takes issue with trustees who are former district employees receiving taxpayer-funded benefits while serving as public servants.
"They are nice people, but they've just been feeding at the public trough for far too long," she said. "My problem with the (Lodi Unified) school board is they're all retired public educators or firefighters. They're already getting benefits."
An initiative known as "No Perks for Part-time Politicians" would have barred part-time officials from collecting health benefits, pensions, car allowances, professional dues or any compensation other than a stipend or per diem. That fizzled and never made it to the ballot.
The San Joaquin taxpayer group would like to take a hard look at every district's trustee compensation, said Renison.
He feels a small stipend is fair, but other benefits should be eliminated.
"For a lot of people, public service has morphed into this sense of entitlement. They're spending minimum time and getting maximum benefits for something someone else made their livelihood to earn," Renison said. "Being a school board trustee is not a livelihood."
The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.