During this time of the year, I've been covering an annual ritual in public schools. It's the dance of the layoff notices in which a school district issues a notice to teachers and other employees that they might not have a job next school year. And in every case, every year there are the usual speeches given during school board meetings about how difficult this decision was to make and that no one takes pleasure in letting valued people go.

Understandably, teachers and parents in the audience plead with the school board not to take away their favorite teacher as they wipe away tears. And in fact, the crux of the problem stems from uncertainty in state funding for schools.

Consider that in the last few years Kern County schools have been hit hard by the state as financial support of school districts has been drastically reduced because of a continuing downturn in the economy. During this time, teachers and other staff have been terminated. Class sizes have been increased. Services have been curtailed. Student transportation decreased.

Superintendents say they have done all they could to look for cuts in the budget and there is nowhere else to cut but in the classroom. And a teachers' union spokesman usually says he/she doesn't like it, but understands the situation.

But what I have yet to hear a superintendent say is something like, "I've decided to ask the board of trustees to give up their handsome health care benefits, which cost the district tens of thousands of dollars each year." And then open the topic for public discussion.

California law, in fact, allows school districts to provide health care benefits to those elected to a school board at no cost to the school board member. It's a perk. During times like these, the question is whether a school district should continue to spend money on health benefits for board members.

In the Beardsley School District, four teachers were given a layoff notice and more cuts or furloughs of staff members are anticipated. In figures provided by the district to the Kern County grand jury, Beardsley pays out $74,493 a year in health care premiums for its five school board members. That comes out to 43.79 cents per student at Beardsley.

Greenfield Union recently issued 23 layoff notices to teachers. Yet four out of five school board members receive health care benefits at an annual cost of $59,200.

Bakersfield City School District shells out $62,400 in health care benefit costs for four of five board members. This year, BCSD did not issue any layoff notices because it is financially stable and has a reserve of about $60 million, according to school board member Andrae Gonzalez.

"If we were making cuts, I'd be the first one to suggest that board members forgo health care benefits," said Gonzalez, who was elected to the BCSD board in November and receives the health care package.

The practice is widespread, but 13 out of Kern County's 48 school districts have stopped doing so. Most recent to put an end to this practice is Standard School District, which according to Superintendent Kevin Silberberg, saves the district $87,000 a year.

"We want to lead by example," Silberberg said. "When I meet with candidates running for a vacant seat I tell them we no longer provide health care benefits."

But Standard continues to provide health care benefits for one retired board member at an annual cost of $14,000. State law allows districts to provide the perk to qualifying retired board members. It used to be free lifetime benefits, but has since been revoked.

Before I get accused (again) of bashing school board members, there is no doubt the job is demanding and at times thankless. Duties include but are not limited to adopting an annual budget, hiring and firing administrators, negotiating contracts, setting district policy and guidelines and attending and supporting school events. Board meetings are usually once a month, but more can be called. Greenfield Union School District board member Tiffany Clendenen bristles at the suggestion she gets something for nothing.

"I don't consider my health benefits 'free' as I put in a lot of hours. I do NOT just show up to our bi-monthly board meetings. I spend a ton of time contacting teachers, parents and other members of our community looking to serve as best I can for our students," Clendenen wrote in an email. She also voted against the recent layoff notices.

"Each district has to make their own decisions about this," said Mike Turnipseed, president of watchdog group Kern County Taxpayers Association.

"There are districts that have been very prudent that aren't laying off teachers, so you have to ask, 'Why?'" Turnipseed said.

The position of a school board member is voluntary. As noted in a recent Kern County grand jury report, is it possible that an individual might run for office to receive the available benefits? Especially in small rural districts where it may be difficult to attract candidates? The grand jury looked into the issue during the 2004-05 school year and again last year. In both cases it recommended that school districts providing health insurance at district cost to trustees re-examine this policy and cut down on costs. A common response from numerous school districts was hardly receptive.

Many wrote the following reply: "It is still unclear that this issue is a proper subject of review by the Grand Jury because it appears to be an inquiry as to the merit, wisdom or expediency of substantive policy determinations which may fall within the jurisdiction and discretion of a particular district."

And besides, it's legal to do this. So there!

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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