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Opinion
East County Wed Apr 20, 2011 3 years ago

OPINION: School Board on right path

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by: The Observer Staff

The Manatee County School Board is on the right track. But it will take spinal fortitude to do the right thing.

That right thing is to make the district’s health-insurance fund solvent and watch out for the pocketbooks of taxpayers. The teachers and other employees have their unions, and the non-union employees will get pay and benefit changes mirroring what the union members get.

But taxpayers have only the School Board watching out for them. And taxpayers have been hurting badly for several years and need some protection from better organized spenders of public money — public-sector unions.

So it is heartening to see that the School Board appears to be careening into the right decision to follow a three-year plan to put its insurance fund in the black again.

That’s critical because the school district is self insured. Employees pay premiums into the fund, and the fund pays healthcare costs through various health plans from which an employee can choose. That fund went from a $2.1 million surplus in in 2006 to a $700,000 loss the following year. As of the end of 2010, it generated a $9.4 million loss.

That’s not sustainable.

So the School Board plans to increase health-insurance premiums enough to cover expected costs and erase the deficit within three years. It is a responsible direction. Even though the district is going to review all of its options for employee healthcare coverage in 2012 — including remaining self insured, using brokers and other options — it needs to make the self-insurance fund whole.

The Manatee Education Association, representing teachers and paraprofessionals, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1584, representing the district’s non-teachers, said the School Board was asking too much. Finally, the district declared impasse, and now we are in the hearings stage.

In the end, the School Board has the authority to impose a contract. The question is: Does it have the will to impose a contract that is fair to taxpayers, not just school employees?

Last week, the School Board voted to delay increasing premiums on non-union employees until the impasse proceedings with the unions are complete. That makes sense, because it would be a bookkeeping nightmare, plus unfair, to have some start paying the necessary increase before others.

The encouraging part is that the 4-1 vote was tacit approval of the three-year plan to make the insurance fund solvent through higher premiums. That cannot be done until the contracts are approved, perhaps in June. As some board members and the superintendent pointed out, the vote suggests the majority of the board is ready to implement the three-year plan.

But it is disheartening to hear how one School Board member views the issue.

During the discussion to vote not to vote yet, School Board member Julie Aranibar said she thinks the three-year plan is based on bad information — which reflects the unions’ thinking — and that she was “very concerned we are asking people for more money for something we’ve proven has not been solvent.”

But the obvious reason it is not solvent is because premiums have not been high enough to pay for healthcare costs. The way to make it solvent is to increase premiums.

The School Board has brought this upon itself with unnecessarily generous benefits. So now it has the responsibility to fix it — without more taxpayer subsidization — and appears intent on doing so.

It just needs a majority with the backbone to make the right decision over the political decision.

It appears to have it.

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