School Board must deal with insurance hikes

Friday, June 5, 2009

The school board's budget committee heard bad news at their latest meeting, and spent over two hours Monday night searching for ways to save money without compromising the quality of education being provided to Marshall County's children.

Budget director Janet Wiles said the bad news was that medical insurance premiums were going to go up 10 percent in 2010.

Wiles announced even more bad news: the county's revenues from sales and property taxes were down, with sales tax especially bad for May, which could threaten the county's ability to fund the schools at even the maintenance of effort level.

"I don't see how they can if they don't have the money," said committee member Craig Michael.

"Schools are the priority," said chairwoman Kristen Gold, implying that the county might have to spend less in other areas to keep the schools going.

Many alternatives for paying medical insurance premiums were discussed. Right now, the school system pays about 75 percent of the premium for all employees.

"That's very competitive with other districts," said Michael. "Some systems pay different for certified and non-certified,"

"A lot of systems will pay 100 percent of an individual's premium, but not of a family," added director of schools Stan Curtis.

"This is a situation that needs hard discussion for the future," said Michael.

"It could be a powder keg issue," acknowledged Curtis. "We need to look across the state: if we're very far off other districts, we need to re-evaluate. There's several options: we need to work out numbers for all of them and look at every scenario."

"One possibility now would be to look at what's paid for insurance for non-certified personnel," said Michael. "Maybe in the long term we could start to work toward paying 50 percent of their premium."

"That would put it more in line with what's experienced in other workplaces," agreed Gold.

"Can we get numbers from even a couple of the surrounding counties?" asked Michael.

Wiles agreed to provide numbers, and Gold pointed out that Curtis, as negotiator, needed to meet with school board members to see what they want to propose to the Marshall County Education Association. According to a bill just passed by the state legislature, this meeting may now be held in private.

The good news appears to be that student numbers are not rising dramatically.

"Jackie (Abernathy) and I spent a lot of time looking at enrollment numbers and teacher numbers," said Wiles. "We'll know better after new-student enrollment this week, but it looks like student numbers are down and we may not have to re-fill two teaching positions."

Curtis also brought some good news: using the Edulog software for planning bus routes, there might be a couple of routes that could be consolidated or even eliminated.

"I think we're going to be fine," said Wiles optimistically.

"We're not as bad off as projected," conceded Gold.

"Last year and this year we've been spending more than we've been taking in," Michael cautioned. "That's where we're getting in trouble. It's unrealistic to expect more money from the county in the next year or two."

"It concerns me about the alternative school," Michael added, bringing up a project that Curtis wants to spend up to $100,000 on next year. "It's obviously a logical thing to do, but maybe now is not the right time."

"Without it, my concern is what to do with these 'Zero-Tolerance' kids," said Curtis. "I have 10 or 15 of them I want to get back to school. I don't want dropouts! If we don't make the graduation rate, we don't have safe harbor status."

"It's your call," said Michael. "I support you 100 percent."

With less than two months until the end of the financial year, the committee has no time to waste. "We need to pass a budget draft at the next board meeting," said Michael.

"Yes," agreed Gold, "But the budget draft has to incorporate the results from the negotiations (with MCEA)."

"Insurance is the big piece we lack," Wiles said.

Michael pointed out that the board members need to present a unified front when talking to county commissioners about next year's school budget.

"People will say, 'they have a lot more' because of the stimulus money," Michael said.

"People don't understand it has to be spent in certain, very limited ways," Curtis pointed out. "Title I is for the poor, and IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) is for special ed; there's no money for the other stuff. The stimulus money just keeps us from having to make drastic cuts."

"It could help us board members to have a kind of 'CliffsNotes' so we can show unity and understanding when talking about the budget," said Michael, and Wiles agreed to provide this.

Looking at other ways to cut the budget, Michael brought up professional development, where $60,000 was spent last year.

"I recommend we take a look," he said. "It's a hard sell to the commission."

"It seemed like the board wanted to increase professional development," Curtis said. "But we'll take a look at it."

Michael also brought up a potentially very unpopular way to cut the budget: reduce the pay for non-certified workers.

"I'm not recommending we do, but a five percent cut would bring in $200,000," he said.

"We could look at reducing hours," said Wiles. "That's easier to swallow than a pay cut."

"Looking at a lot of these, if we did everything we talked about, it would cover what we're lacking," said Michael. "We can get there if we need to," he concluded. "We are making good progress."