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LA County Office of Education, unions at impasse over health benefits

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The Los Angeles County Office of Education and its unions have reached an impasse in negotiations over next year's healthcare benefits and are now in state mediation.

Union officials say the education office is taking advantage of their willingness to play ball over the years; they plan to voice their concerns Tuesday during public comment before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. But county officials say an uncertain budget year and the possibility of additional new cuts make it impossible to offer more.

The L.A. County Office of Education negotiates health and welfare benefits every year with the Los Angeles County Education Assn., Service Employees International Union Local 99, and the California School Employees Assn.

For years, under an agreement with the unions, the office set aside money from workers' pay for a trust that would help offset rising healthcare costs. That trust grew to about $6 million at one point, but it's dwindled to about $630,000, said Rudy Spivery, a treasurer for the L.A. County Employees Assn.

"We're down to the last $630,000, and they want to take that," Spivery said. "We knew it couldn't last, but we worked with LACOE all these years — now it's time for LACOE to give us something back."

What LACOE has offered is to cover the remaining costs of the $1.2 million it estimates in increased healthcare expenses for next year and to negotiate for future years. The office made that final offer on Sept. 14. All three unions rejected it.

"We would exhaust all [trust] funds and we would match these funds and any other cost beyond that we would absorb...so that their health and welfare benefits could stay the same," said Darren McDuffie, assistant superintendent of human resources for the L.A. County Office of Education.

McDuffie said the "stopgap measure" would ensure that no worker had to pay more this year. "At this point there is so much uncertainty, with the propositions coming up, in terms of budgeting and the schools...What we want to do is stop right now and keep everything the same and talk."

Public education in California faces a $6 billion cut if November ballot initiatives to raise taxes do not pass. If voters don't approve the new taxes, the agency faces a $5.5 million cut, said Alex Cherniss, the L.A. County Office of Education chief business officer.

Spivery pointed to a $70 million ending balance that LACOE noted on its budget sheets in July. But Cherniss said that money constitutes restricted grants, funds for specific schools that are passed through the county, and otherwise earmarked for specific purposes.

Instead, Cherniss said the L.A. County Office of Education ended the past year with a $1.5 million surplus that reflects about 0.2 percent of its $645 million budget.

The agency operates county schools, the Juvenile Court schools and community day schools; the Juvenile Court schools have an $80 million deficit and the community day schools face a $11 million shortfall, said LACOE spokeswoman Margo Minecki.

"If you look at our whole budget, we have a really minuscule surplus," Cherniss said. "But there are a lot of programs we are running that are in the red." 

Cherniss said the offer is "a very fair deal" amid financial uncertainty.

"That fund is dwindling down and now we're faced with the reality of how we're going to fund health insurance when rates continue to increase," Cherniss said.

But Spivery said the office does not value its teachers and workers, who already face some of the toughest classroom working conditions in the county, and is asking them to go blindly into a future without any remaining trust funds or assurances that there will be help to offset costs.

"What are we worth to you?" Spivery said. "I know it's tough out there in all these schools, but what we do...we're asking LACOE to be fair.

"...They're concerned about their costs in the future, but so are we," Spivery continued. "When next year comes, if there are increases they refuse to negotiate into pay, where is that money coming from? It's coming from the pockets of the teachers."

The parties met with a state mediator Monday after they declared an impasse last month.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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