LONG BEACH - The Long Beach Unified School District and its teachers union have officially come to an agreement on a contract that compromises over health care benefits and saves the district's Head Start preschool program.

The Board of Education in its meeting Tuesday night voted unanimously in favor of ratifying a contract with the Teachers Association of Long Beach. The district and the 3,600-member TALB were in contract negotiations for nearly two years and hit a stalemate this summer over health care benefits.

The rising cost of employee health care has become an issue for districts across the state as schools face millions of dollars in funding cuts.

TALB President Virginia Torres said the contract preserves health benefits for teachers, nurses and librarians in Long Beach Unified, the city's largest employer. TALB members ratified the agreement Friday with 92 percent approval.

"It certainly was a compromise for us, and while it's not the best outcome, meeting in the middle is good," she said. "The contract does do the one thing we set out to achieve, and that was getting the district off of the proposed hard cap on our benefits."

LBUSD teachers currently pay no monthly premiums on their health insurance. The district pays up to $21,862 a year in health benefits for a teacher under the most expensive family plan.

Under the new agreement, the school district's maximum contributions for medical premiums will be set at 100 percent of the most expensive plan for employees. If the cost of the plan goes up in 2014, the school district contribution will cover up to 3.5 percent of the increase - and the employees will pay the difference. Other cost-cutting measures include increases to co-pays for medical office and emergency room visits.

The school district had previously proposed a maximum employer contribution cap of no more than 95 percent of the 2012 premium costs of the most expensive plan. The proposal, however, drew backlash from employees who said the plan would cost some families hundreds of dollars each month.

LBUSD officials said the plan addresses the escalating costs of health care while saving the district about $1.5 million in 2013 through health plan adjustments. LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser has said the contract preserves affordable, high quality health care for teachers.

The agreement also will save the district's Head Start program, a federal preschool program for low-income families that was slated to be cut next year. Under the new agreement, Head Start teachers will take an 11-day pay reduction in order to keep the program.

The LBUSD avoided an additional $35 million loss in annual funding with the passage of Proposition 30, but officials have said the temporary tax measure won't replace years of state funding reductions.

The state's third-largest school district has laid off 1,000 employees and slashed its budget by $300 million since 2008 in an effort to remain fiscally stable.

The district is still working to close a $20 million budget hole and is considering closing small schools and freezing vacant positions to balance the budget.

kelly.puente@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2181, twitter.com/kellypuentept