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Legislative Review: Claire Ayer, Trust local school boards on funding

No matter the issue, there’s always another side to the story — and a chance to distort facts just far enough to stay within sight of the truth. There’s no emergency about teachers’ health insurance, but there IS an opportunity for taxpayers to save millions of dollars.
Months ago, school boards, legislators and educators knew that teachers’ health insurance was changing effective Jan. 1, 2018. Vermont has done well, or at least better than most of the country, keeping insurance rate increases down and it is not surprising to see that choices afforded to the teachers’ union are less expensive than in the past.
So what’s the emergency? Where’s the “now or never”? Schools are already bargaining for much lower insurance rates. The emergency is that if the administration doesn’t act now to sweep teacher insurance savings into the state budget, school boards might keep the savings themselves. At least seven unions and schools have brought, or are in the process of bringing, hundreds of thousands of saved dollars to their local budgets. These savings are real and derive from local school boards and teachers reaching agreements that save health care dollars now. All of the remaining school districts are negotiating new contracts that will be effective either July 1, 2017, or once the sides reach agreement following the existing statutory process. There are a large number of schools (approximately 20 right now) at an impasse, but that backlog is to be expected given the new health plans coming online next January, and school boards and educators are working to settle contracts.
The Scott Plan: About a third of the savings will go toward education tax relief, but the remainder of the savings will go to the state’s budget for non-educational expenses.
The flip side of this is that school boards negotiate the same lower cost insurance packages and keep the savings in their own budgets. When per-pupil costs go down, local tax rates go down. There’s no certainty that all schools will use all of the savings to reduce local tax rates. Schools may choose to rehire their part-time librarian, replace the cafeteria stove, or provide an artist in residence experience for their students. It’s a choice driven by local voters.
In brief, the only emergency in the governor’s proposal is to take health insurance savings for the state budget now, before local school boards use the savings in their own budgets. I trust school boards to spend and save wisely.

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