John Lee Evans for School Board Logo

John Lee Evans

New SD school board leader announces health care pact

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Kicking off his term as president of the San Diego city school board Thursday, John Lee Evans promised new collaboration with unions and announced a health care initiative that could save the district $2 million a year.

With labor officials at his side, Evans said employee groups are stepping up to help the San Diego Unified School District solve its fiscal problems.

“We are looking to emphasize the ‘unified’ in our name.” Evans said. “No whining, no excuses, we’re all going to find solutions.”

Unions have signed off on what he said could be the first of many agreements that could help save the district money. The initiative would give certain employees $900 if they agree to downgrade to a less-expensive health insurance plan for at least three years.

The plan will go to the board next month for approval and would be available to nearly 1,400 employees — about 10 percent of the district’s workforce — who currently subscribe to the most expensive health insurance plans — either a PPO or top-tier HMO plans. To save $2 million annually, at least half of the eligible employees would have to volunteer for the incentive.

Union leaders said they would do their part to share the district’s financial burden. But they stopped short of discussing salary adjustments, furlough days or other major concessions.

“We are committed to working with the district to try and find ways to save money because it helps kids,” said Ethel Larkins, who represents bus drivers and other nonteaching employees.

Unlike other districts and public agencies, San Diego Unified employees and their dependents get health care with no premiums. Trustee Scott Barnett, who was elected vice president of the board this week, has called for employee contributions to health care premiums, except for those covered by Kaiser. Unions have not commented on that plan that would save the district about $12 million annually.

The district dodged tough midyear budget cuts to its $1.057 operating budget with the release of rosier-than-expected state fiscal projections earlier this week. San Diego Unified will cut $7 to $8 million from this year’s budget by Feb. 1 — not the $30 million it feared. But the district still faces a deficit of about $73 million next year.

San Diego Unified has two ways to offset next year’s budget gap, Evans said: Layoffs or employee concessions.

The teachers union was the only district labor group not represented at Evans’ event. The San Diego Education Association signed off on the health care incentive but has balked at discussing major concessions the district has been pushing for months until there’s more solid information about the state’s finances for the coming year.

Superintendent Bill Kowba commended Thursday’s gathering of district and union officials.

“This is not just a symbolic, but genuine and fully engaged gathering of the team,” Kowba said.

Evans also reached out to the private sector, issuing “an open letter to San Diego business leaders” offering to “press the reset button on the relationship between the San Diego business community and our public schools.”

“We all have a mutual interest in strong San Diego schools that are so critical to develop a thriving San Diego economy,” the letter states.

Evans was unanimously elected president of the board on Tuesday by trustees. Although it is a largely ceremonial post, the president has historically served as the official spokesperson for the board. The president is also charged with setting school board agendas and maintaining order during public meetings.