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Chris Rickert: Health insurance changes a cure for what ails schools budget?
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Chris Rickert: Health insurance changes a cure for what ails schools budget?

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The Madison School District won an historic concession from its teachers union over the last two years — the ability to require that teachers pay part of their health insurance premiums.

It came as the district was quickly extending union contracts before a law eliminating most collective bargaining rights took effect, and again while that law was held up in court.

But now as the district goes about crafting a 2013-14 budget that — among other cost-savings measures — reduces maintenance spending, freezes equipment budgets and includes no money for new efforts to close the district’s achievement gap, it doesn’t appear there’s much interest in implementing the concession.

The budget proposal from new Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham doesn’t subject teachers to health insurance premiums, and that’s fine with School Board President Ed Hughes.

“Because of our recent transitions, this was not the budget to take up significant changes to our structure of salary and benefits,” he said in an email. “I and other board members are looking forward to an in-depth review of salary and benefit levels as part of next year’s budget, when we’ll have the benefit of input from Jen Cheatham and (assistant superintendent for business services) Mike Barry, as well as from our affected teachers and staff. I’m sure that health insurance contributions will be part of that discussion.”

“Recent transitions” didn’t keep Cheatham from proposing changes to the district’s salary schedules, though.

The proposed budget includes a 1 percent raise for teachers, which will come on top of the automatic pay bumps the majority of teachers receive annually for seniority, degree attainment or both, and which will be built into those permanent salary schedules.

To be fair, in 2011 the district began forcing teachers to cover half their pension contributions — or about 5.8 percent of salary — although that’s still a pretty good deal in a private sector full of 401ks and low employer contributions.

Meanwhile, the cost of health insurance has been growing at rates well above inflation for many years, and with it, the amounts most employees have to pay for premiums.

A Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year found that per-employee annual premiums for single and family coverage averaged $5,615 and $15,745, respectively, with employees with single coverage contributing about 17 percent, or $951, of their premium costs and employees with family coverage contributing about 27 percent, or about $4,316.

And according to a 2012-13 survey by the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, 157 of the 174 Wisconsin school districts that responded to the survey required teachers to cover part of their health insurance premiums.

Even many of those covered by the state’s health care program for the poor, BadgerCare, are now required to pay a small portion of their premiums.

Not Madison teachers, though — which, to be clear, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But as the district goes about approving a tight budget, it does seem like something worth keeping in mind.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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