The Austin school district will not offer health insurance benefits to domestic partners — for now, at least.
Some cities and counties in Texas have long offered such benefits, including the city of Austin and Travis County. The Pflugerville school district made history in January by becoming the first school district in the state to do so. The Austin school district soon followed, announcing in March that it planned to extend the benefits to same-sex partners.
But now the Austin school district has become the first to balk after the Texas attorney general warned that offering domestic partner benefits could violate the Texas Constitution.
Some are questioning the district’s resolve, while others hope a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Wednesday striking down the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act will encourage the district to reconsider.
“I think it’s a shame and really disappointing that AISD has stuck themselves out there like this,” said Brian Thompson, an Austin attorney who sits on the board of directors for the advocacy group Equality Texas, which is working with the district on the issue.
Thompson said the attorney general opinion — which isn’t legally binding, and which Thompson calls politically motivated — still leaves room to offer the benefits. He pointed to Michigan, which offers a “plus-one” system that extends benefits to an employee and any one other person, as an example. As long as the benefits plan doesn’t explicitly create a domestic partnership, it should be legal, he said.
“It may take some creativity, but the legality of it shouldn’t be a question,” Thompson said.
City of Austin attorney Karen Kennard said after the ruling was issued she thought the attorney general opinion was incorrect. And in May, Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county won’t change its benefits plan.
District officials said Friday they will meet again with legal counsel this summer to see how the high court’s ruling — which allows federal benefits to be extended to same-sex couples who are legally married in their states — could apply.
The district could again offer the benefits, but it’s unclear when that might be.
Superintendent Meria Carstarphen has made it clear that she believes offering the benefits is “the right thing to do,” said Mel Waxler, the district’s chief of staff and general counsel.
The president of the district’s largest employee group said Friday he was hopeful the benefits will be offered in the future.
“This isn’t over yet,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, a labor group that represents 3,000 district employees. “We will continue to work on it.”
The district’s decision to hold off on offering the benefits, announced in a letter to employees Thursday, comes after months of uncertainty.
The district announced in March its intention to extend benefits to domestic partners, including same-sex and heterosexual couples who are not married, effective in September. But the district put the plan on hold after the attorney general’s opinion issued the following month. The plan remains on hold as open enrollment for the district’s employee benefits begins Monday, Thursday’s letter said.
Michael Houser, the district’s chief human resources officer, said in the letter that the district had to finalize the 2013-14 insurance rates on April 30, two months before the Supreme Court ruling.
“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 wrote.
Houser also pointed to a bill filed during the legislative session that sought to cut funding to school districts offering insurance benefits to domestic partners, which would have cost the district $22 million had it become law.
The timing of Houser’s letter, sent a day after the Supreme Court ruling, deflated the hopes of Pam Lynch, a special education teaching assistant at Clayton Elementary School, and her partner, Susan Armstrong, a special education teacher at Cowan Elementary. The couple of nine years has considered going to another state to get married, and they were looking forward to enrolling for benefits as a couple at the district’s open enrollment fair next month.
“Of course now it’s not going to happen,” Lynch said. “I think it will. It’s going to come to that. It’s just, they’re so slow.”