AUSTIN -- Just three months after the Austin Independent School District announced it would extend benefits to its employees in domestic partnerships, the district notified them that it is reversing its decision.
Back in March, AISD announced it planned to extend health insurance benefits to domestic partners.
Ellen Thibedeaux works for AISD. She and her partner have had to deal with insurance problems before.
“She's in her 40's and we had to decide that she wouldn't have health insurance,” she said.
Thibedeaux received her benefits package in the mail this week. It surprised her to find AISD won't offer domestic partnership benefits to employees.
“I think that's it something they do want and it's something they're trying to do and so I'm hoping that they get it done,” Thibedeaux said.
Right now employees pay $492 to $704 a month to cover a spouse. The rate would have been the same for domestic partners. The district expected anywhere from 300 to 350 employees could have taken part in the new policy, and it was expected to cost the district about $600,000.
The move came a few months after the Pflugerville School District became the first in the state to offer same-sex benefits.
However, AISD Chief Human Capital Officer Michael Houser notified employees in a letter Thursday that the district would not extend the benefits. KVUE has obtained a copy of the letter. In it, Houser explains AISD simply ran out of time to make the proposal a reality.
The letter stated the district had to finalize the 2013-14 insurance rates two months before Wednesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage. "AISD had to make a decision on whether to extend coverage to domestic partnerships by April 30, 2013," Houser wrote. "Now that the Supreme Court rulings have been issued, and subject to extensive due diligence that must occur, it is possible that something may change over the next few months and allow the district to return to its original intent of offering domestic partnerships coverage."
Houser also explained that AISD’s legal counsel advised against offering such benefits after a Texas Attorney General opinion said a district would violate the Texas Constitution if the health plan is determined to create or recognize a legal status that is similar to marriage.
At the time, a spokesperson for AISD released a statement saying, "City of Austin staff will be reviewing the opinion in order to brief the Council on its potential implications, impact or consequences. As a large employer, the City of Austin intends to uphold our commitment to attracting and maintaining quality employees. It is our belief that part of being a Best Managed city includes respecting diversity and inclusion."
There was also pending legislation in the Texas House that would have allowed the state's Education Commissioner to cut funding or even shut down a district that allowed the benefits.
Ken Zarifis, President of Education Austin says state officials should not have gotten involved in the domestic partnership benefits decision.
They are so interested in local control until it comes down to localities like a district that wants to do business and take care of things the way they see fit then they want to enter in and control things,” Zarifis said. “In a perfect world I want us to be able on the first day of school to provide domestic partnerships to all the couples that want to have that in our district, that's what I want, that's my dream.”
It was April, and a legal advisor working for AISD suggested they wait until the Supreme Court ruled on two cases concerning gay marriage, but they couldn't wait any longer.
The district was working under an April 30th deadline, the time when it had to decide what to offer before open enrollment for benefits in AISD began on July 1.
The letter also adds now that the Supreme Court decisions are made, the district could put the offer back on the table.
For now, AISD employees have been informed that their domestic partners will not be eligible for benefits on September 1. The Austin district’s insurance enrollment begins July 1.
See Houser's complete letter below:
Dear Team AISD,
As you may know, on March 26, 2013, Austin ISD announced its intentions to expand its insurance coverage to include domestic partnerships. We did so because our employees and students represent a diverse population, and expanding coverage was about offering competitive and quality benefits for all employees, which also can help with recruiting and retaining great talent.
Subsequently, on April 29, 2013, the Texas Attorney General (AG) issued an opinion regarding the provision of health benefits to domestic partnerships. In the opinion, the AG stated that a school district would violate the Texas Constitution if the health plan is determined to create or recognize a legal status that is similar to marriage. Additionally, a bill was filed in the 83rd Texas Legislative Session seeking to cut funding to school districts offering insurance benefits to domestic partnerships—legislation that, if approved, could have cost the district an estimated $22 million. The legislation was also expanded to give the Texas Education Commissioner the ability to revoke the accreditation of a school district and order the closure of the district entirely. Because of these events, AISD sought the opinion of external legal counsel, who advised the district to wait until the Supreme Court issued rulings on two cases before making a final decision on extending health coverage to domestic partnerships.
In order to set the district’s 2013-14 insurance rates, finalize the design of the district’s benefits plan, and begin communicating information to employees two months before mandatory open enrollment begins on July 1, (which has been the district’s procedure for years), AISD had to make a decision on whether to extend coverage to domestic partnerships by April 30, 2013. Thus, based on the advice of legal counsel, AISD believed it had no choice but to maintain its current benefits practice until the Supreme Court’s rulings were issued and the Texas Legislative session ended.
Now that the Supreme Court rulings have been issued, and subject to extensive due diligence that must occur, it is possible that something may change over the next few months and allow the district to return to its original intent of offering domestic partnerships coverage.
AISD will continue discussions and consultation with the district’s joint insurance committee and our employee association representatives on this matter.
Thank you for all that you do to move our district forward, and have a restful break.
Chief Human Capital Officer