It's often difficult to find the right words to admit an error. So Culver City High School teacher Howard Bennett has said it the way he knows best: in a cartoon.
Over the New Year's weekend, Bennett mailed his colleagues a cartoon depicting school employees as a school marm covering her mouth and exclaiming, "What have I done?! " as she watches an autocratic man representing the teachers' union tearing a paper with campaign promises as he says, "Promises? What promises? "
Last February, Bennett launched a successful cartoon campaign to replace the teachers' union with a rival group to negotiate a new contract that would include lifetime health benefits. Under the current contract, health benefits end at age 65. In the cartoons, he characterized the union representing teachers at the time, the Culver City Federation of Teachers, as being asleep on the job. He also said it made false promises.
But now Bennett is saying he was wrong to support the Culver City Teachers Assn., which had promised to negotiate for a 10% raise in salaries and lifetime health benefits. In October, teachers ratified a contract that included a 6% raise and an agreement to study the possibility of a new city property tax to pay for the health benefits.
"I realize that I am an old fool," Bennett told The Times this week. "I trusted and believed in people who sold us. I think the federation is still laughing and wanting to profit from the discomfort of the CTA, but I have no malice against either group."
David Meilke, president of the ousted Federation of Teachers, said his members knew all along that the Teachers Assn. was not going to be able to deliver on all its promises.
"I think that the thing that irritated a lot of people was that after months of promises, they settled the new contract inside of a month," Meilke said of last October's contract ratification. "I'm happy to see that Howard now sees the light."
Meilke said the association should have at least waited to see the outcome of Proposition 98, approved in November's general election, which establishes a minimum level of state funding for schools and requires excess state revenues to be used for education.
Its specific effect on Culver City or any other district is not known, but it could mean additional money for some districts.
Teachers Assn. President Bess Doerr said she was disappointed that Bennett has withdrawn his support for the federation. "I understand how he feels," she said. "But we did not promise that we would get lifetime benefits. It was more than a one-issue campaign last year."
In addition to acknowledging his error, Bennett said he hopes his latest cartoon will remind teachers that their health benefits will still end at age 65. He said union officials are now beginning negotiations for 1989-90 salary and benefits adjustments, and he said he hopes teachers will not ratify any changes without lifetime health benefits.
"I want to really wake up the membership," Bennett said. "Let's all stick around and no one retire until all of us are given lifetime health coverage."
Bennett last fall formed his own group, School Employees' Assn. for Lifetime Health Coverage, to push the district into extending teachers' health benefits through the state Public Employees Retirement System, which does include lifetime coverage.
Bennett also hopes to wake up both the union's negotiators and Culver City Unified School District officials next week when he announces the winners of a contest he initiated to find money within the district's annual $18.5-million budget to pay for the health coverage.
Both district and union officials have said that the $300,000 needed annually to pay for increased health coverage is not available.
Found $2.4 Million
But Bennett claims that his contest has found $2.4 million that could be used for increased health benefits without increasing the budget or cutting salaries or school programs.
Bennett would not disclose where or how the money could be raised. He said the six winning ideas would be announced next Wednesday at 5 p.m. at the Culver City Veterans Memorial Auditorium.
(The winners will receive prizes, donated by merchants, ranging from a garbage disposal to a weekend trip to Las Vegas.)
Meilke said that Bennett's contest could adversely affect the collective bargaining process, but "the issue of benefits transcends the concerns of union affiliations, so if Howard has found a way for us to obtain benefits, then we should listen to him."
Doerr said she will not be able to attend Wednesday's meeting but said she hopes Bennett has found the money for the extended benefits. She said another representative of the federation would be present at the meeting.
Ralph Villani, the assistant superintendent who handles negotiations for the school district, said he had no comment on the contest, and that he does not plan to attend the Wednesday announcement.