FAIRBANKS — The Fairbanks region has only one local legislative entity offering health insurance to its elected officials — the school board.
Other local legislative bodies long ago eliminated health insurance compensation for their members, many of whom work day jobs and serve part-time in public office. However, the school board has maintained its health insurance benefit.
Most members of the Fairbanks school board said they collect health insurance benefits from the school district in exchange for their public service.
The cost to the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District to provide school board members with health benefits is $65,653 for the current fiscal year, according to the district’s chief financial officer.
Other large school districts in Alaska also offer health insurance benefits to school board members. Members of school boards in Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough are offered health benefits, according to officials with those districts.
Juneau school board members do not receive health insurance, according to Kristin Bartlett, chief of staff at the Juneau School District.
Timi Tullis, director of board development and field services for the Association of Alaska School Boards, said board compensation is a local control decision and that it varies from district to district.
There was a time when health insurance was widely offered to local leaders in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Members of the Fairbanks City Council did away with their health benefits in the late 1980s, according to City Councilman Jerry Cleworth, a long-time city leader. He said the council voted to eliminate council member health coverage as a cost-cutting measure.
Members of the Borough Assembly were allowed heath insurance as a benefit until a narrow vote in 2003 ended the practice, with proponents arguing that it is inappropriate to provide health insurance for part-time public service.
Members of the North Pole City Council also do not get health insurance from the city. Jeff Jacobson, former North Pole mayor and councilman, said in an email that he does not recall health insurance ever being offered to council members.
So why do Fairbanks school board members get health insurance?
The News-Miner contacted school board members to ask why they should receive health care benefits. Their answers varied.
Tim Doran, a new member of the school board, said he declined the health insurance because he has other coverage but that he thinks it’s a valuable benefit that helps attract candidates to run for school board.
“It broadens the pool, especially people who might be more economically challenged,” he said. “You want a broad spectrum of people to run and be part of municipal government. There are some people who would find it very difficult to do for economic reasons.”
Board member Wendy Dominique said she accepted the health care benefit from the school district for herself and her husband but that her primary health care coverage is through her job on Fort Wainwright.
Dominique pointed out that compensation of local leaders varies from institution to institution. The school board stipend of $400 a month is substantially less than the Borough Assembly stipend of $900 a month, she said.
“We do just as many hours as they do,” she said.
Heidi Haas, president of the school board, did not disclose whether she accepts the health care benefit.
“I can’t speak to why the other bodies compensate their members differently but believe that each body has the right to make that decision, as is the same across the state,” Haas said in an email. “Some school boards in the state offer retirement and some pay nearly $40,000 a year for board service, so there doesn’t appear to be a standard.”
Sean Rice, another Fairbanks school board member, said he rarely uses the coverage provided by the district. He said he has other health insurance that is his primary coverage.
“I just did a bunch of signing,” Rice said. “They didn’t give me the offer to decline.”
Board member Thomas Bartels said he didn’t know that the school district offered health insurance to its board members until after he was elected. He accepted coverage for himself and his family, he said.
“This is something that has been a part of the policy since probably 30-35 years ago,” he said. “I don’t have an answer as to why … Every institution is allowed to make their own judgment as to what they feel and deem necessary.”
Allyson Lambert said she accepted health insurance coverage for herself and her family. She also did not know the history of how health insurance became a benefit for serving on the school board.
Board member Sharon McConnell could not be reached for comment.
Contact staff writer Amanda Bohman at 459-7587. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMborough.