Community forum: State should handle teacher healthcare

This week’s Community Forum is written by Geo Honigford, a school board member from Royalton and the President of the Vermont School Boards Association.
When I first ran for school board in my community 12 years ago, I did so because I am committed to public education and wanted to do my part to ensure the schools in my community provide high quality education to students. I did not fully realize at the time how complex our state’s public education system is, or how complicated the job of a school board member would be.
For well over a decade, school board members have been engaged in a serious dialogue regarding the best approaches to address declining enrollment, rising costs, students with significant learning needs, leadership turnover, and growing inequity in student opportunity. In 2017, we have a unique opportunity to ensure equity in the health care coverage available to all school employees, while at the same time delivering millions of dollars in savings to taxpayers.
I’ve been on the negotiations committee for my school board for 11 years. For the past seven, health insurance has not really been discussed during bargaining, since the Affordable Care Act and Vermont health care reform prevented us from making any significant changes to the benefits we offer to employees. This year, with a slate of new plans offered, negotiations have become more complex, and the issues between the parties more challenging.
Up until now, we have only negotiated how much of the insurance premium the school district would pay for and how much the employees would cover. 90% of employees are on the same plan, so there was no discussion about different plan options. Now, we have to negotiate premium shares for up to four different plans, and we have to negotiate different options for covering out-of-pocket costs, like HRA’s and HSA’s. Every option includes multiple issues for the parties to consider and negotiate. Quite frankly, we volunteer school board members are in over our heads negotiating this health care transition.
Over 20 supervisory unions statewide are at an impasse over this issue. This means that at least a third of the state will have to pay for expensive mediation and fact-finding processes, and the likelihood of strikes or contract impositions across the state is high. Now is the time for school employee health insurance benefits to be established through negotiations at the state level. Unfortunately, the Senate has declined to approve an amendment that would have done so and instead approved a year-long study to determine whether the proposal is a good idea.
But make no mistake about it. Studying this change means missing an opportunity that will not present itself again for many years. $26 million in savings will not materialize through negotiations at the local level, since most school districts did not budget for savings in health care due to the uncertainty of the outcome of negotiations.
If the state negotiates health insurance benefits, all school employees will have access to high quality, affordable health coverage regardless of the school district they work in. Vermonters will see meaningful property tax relief. And school board members can focus on the reason they ran for office — ensuring every child has access to a high quality education in his or her community.

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