Opinion: Insurance hikes give jolt to school budgets

I received the following notice last week in my Addison Northwest Supervisory Union email account: “VEHI (a nonprofit org that provides health insurance benefits to school employees) files 7.9% Contribution Health Rate Renewal with Dept. of Financial Regulation” — 7.9 percent!
Act 46 enacted during the 2015 legislative session is requiring school districts to unify and cap their annual school budget increases to 2 percent or taxpayers will be penalized and have to collect $2 for every $1 over the cap. That is a hefty penalty.
Salaries and benefits are a very large percentage of many school budgets. How the heck are the school boards supposed to keep their budget increases to less than 2 percent with the health insurance costs going up 7.9 percent (and isn’t this increase just the most recent of 20-plus years of significant annual rate increases)? We mandated to implement Act 77, personalized learning for every Vermont student. How are we supposed to do that with less cost per pupil? Personalized learning for less cost per student, does that sound realistic to you?
We have a declining student population driving up the per pupil cost. Even if we don’t raise the budget a single dime the per pupil cost increases because our student population is less than it was last year. I am shaking my head. This budget season is going to be challenging to say the least.
I wish I knew the answer, but I do have a question: When is the Legislature going to do something about health insurance premium increases? Our schools are more and more relied upon to take care of children from families ravaged by lack of living wage jobs, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, reduction in mental health services, incarcerated parents, and more. We ask more and more out of our schools and provide them with less and less resources. It is not sustainable.
Laurie Childers, Addison

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