Earlier in the school year the board voted to give classified staff the option to increase to 36 hours. The move would allow those employees to opt in for insurance for their families. At the April Big Horn County School District No. 4 meeting, the board revisited the issue.
When it was originally passed, board member Brenton Paxton said he would vote yes as long as it was clearly understood that the hours/benefits were for the 2017-18 school year only. He was concerned that with funding cuts at the state level, the district would not be able to afford the cost in future years.
At the April meeting, Supt. Dave Kerby started the discussion about continuing the additional hours/benefits for the 2018-19 school year. “We voted on this earlier this year, a few months back, to add/move classified staff to 36 hours, and to offer benefits to those hours. Most of those staff were special ed staff and the concern was, well, whether or not we could continue paying that. We didn’t know what the special ed funding was or what the budget funding was. I think the motion was made, “We’ll do this for classified staff this year and then revisit after we have a better picture of the money,” Kerby said. His recommendation to the board at this meeting is to move all classified to 36 hours.
He continued by saying that special ed money is 100 percent reimbursed for the coming year (2018-19). Board members were under the impression that night that the amount of money spent in the coming year will set the cap for money that can be spent on special ed in the years starting with 2019-20. (It was later determined that the cap is being set this year, 2017-18, and will limit 2018-19 spending.)
There is a concern that should several staff that aren’t receiving the benefits now decide they want them in 2019-20 the district could be on the hook to pay for the benefits if the spending cap is already reached. Kerby stated that neighboring districts were evaluated, and if an employee had over 30 hours they were offered full benefits. This, factored in his push to do the same in this district.
Business Manager Andy DeGraw responded with, “Correct, but no other districts offer to employees under 30 hours. That is the difference. As it stands now we offer more insurance than any district in the entire state because we offer it to everybody. Most districts offer it to employees from 30 on up. Nothing below 30.” (This district offers employees with less than 30 hours insurance for individuals, but not for families.)
Kerby said that he couldn’t remember who he spoke to in another district but that they basically didn’t have anyone under 30 hours. He said, “They didn’t have those part-time employees. Everybody was there, so there are some of those districts, as well.”
Board chair Audra Crouse asked, “Do we need to consider changing that and grandfather in the people that have it? That have gotten used to it? Go strictly to you have to work more than 30 hours to have this insurance?” She then asked DeGraw to come up to where the board was seated and join the discussion.
Board member Deb Craft asked DeGraw if the insurance company allows people less than 30 hours to have insurance because the company she deals with for her business does not. DeGraw explained the insurance company follows whatever the district’s policy is. That policy is 25-30 hours can get single insurance. He also noted that the district’s policy is more generous than the Affordable Care Act.
“The risk is that down the road one family plan cost the district almost $20,000. Will that happen? Who knows? We’ve had the luxury of having significant cushions. We closed the middle school so there is a huge cushion right now. But every dollar we want to get for our facilities. After this year, going into next year, we’ll get the revenue estimates shortly. Our expenditures and revenue are going to equalize pretty close.”
DeGraw said that employee single insurance costs the district just under $7,000. Employee plus spouse is between $12,000-$13,000. Family insurance is around $20,000. “So the risk that you guys should understand is that we might have to make decisions in other areas that might not be very popular. If we are going to maintain this, then we either run in the negative for a certain period of time or we are going to need to trim budgets in other areas or (make) staff reductions,” noted DeGraw.
Crouse asked him what his philosophy is for offering insurance to people that work 20-25 hours. DeGraw’s response was his philosophy is that it is hard to take away benefits from people who already have them even though they just work the 20-35 hours. Crouse said that is why she thinks the current staff that falls in that category could be grandfathered in, and the district could change the policy. She asked DeGraw if he would look at the policy and assist in writing the new one.
DeGraw indicated that he would and reminded the board that this would be a lower impact because it is only dealing with single policies. The family policies are the ones with the potential to really hurt the district financially.
Board member Chris Kampbell asked DeGraw how many district employees were in the 20-35 hour range. DeGraw said five to 10. A lot of them are bus drivers. (Bus driver expenses are 100 percent reimbursed by the state up to a capped amount).
“If we hadn’t closed Cloud Peak we would be $50,000-$100,000 under water on transportation this year. We will spend exactly right at that this year even with closing Cloud Peak,” DeGraw stated.
He continued by saying his main message is that the board needs to understand the risk. Decisions will have to be made to find the money to pay for the insurance. Those decisions may make some people unhappy.
Kampbell said that it appears to be in the district’s best interest to spend as much money as it can on special ed. It is reimbursable and the district will be able to use the higher cap.
Brendon Paxton, board member, discussed how the district has 10 paras now, four of them are on family insurance but in a couple of years all 10 paras could choose to add family insurance, a potential huge expense to the district.
Crouse stated that she feels the policy should say that all classifieds benefits should be reviewed annually. Kerby said he feels that would be tough on the morale of the staff, to have insurance, then not have it. He went on to say that several of the staff that took advantage of the plan this year were very thankful. Crouse added that the insurance option provides better jobs and more stability for the district. “People don’t come and go,” said Crouse
Paxton pointed out that this was the first year it was offered. The district had to first bump up everyone’s hours just to make it so they could qualify for the family insurance. “We didn’t vote to give them benefits; we voted to bump up their hours.”
DeGraw said that when the board made this vote it caused a tremendous amount of consternation for Lori Thon at the district office. “Fifteen paras with three different scenarios. I need to go in to the computer. This one is at 34 hours, this one has 35 and this one has 36. Whatever we do, we can’t have paras choose how many hours they are working.”
Kerby said that is why the administrators (superintendent and two principals) would like to change it to 36 hours for everyone. “Because then they could come in on Friday afternoons with the teachers and get access to training. It is no longer an option because several of them choose to just stay at 34 hours and not take the benefit.”
DeGraw explained it further by saying “You had one group chose to stay at 34 and not take the benefit. You had the other group choose to go to 36 but not take the benefit. The other group say I want to go to 36 and take the benefit.”
Paxton said his point is that if the board votes tonight to move all the paras to 36 hours, they will all be eligible for family insurance, and the board will have to revisit it again next April. “If the budget is short we aren’t going to say anything about insurance. We are going to say the new contracts they sign or don’t sign, you’re no longer going to be 36 hours, you’re at 34 hours, and no longer qualify for family insurance.”
DeGraw expressed his concern with a flat 36 hours for all classified staff. “We’ve taken one relatively small group and bumped them up. It puts the entire district in question.” Paxton asked what the extra two hours for those paras that had wanted to stay at 34 hours going to cost the district?
RMHS principal Tony Anson spoke up at this time and told the board that the older paras that didn’t want the insurance or the extra hours get to go home at 12:30 p.m. every Friday. “That is a benefit over getting paid an extra two hours,” said Anson.
Paxton added that the board is trying to offer “better jobs” by increasing the hours when half of the staff doesn’t want them.
DeGraw said that the research shows that the competition for school jobs is with the certified positions, not the classified. “That’s where people are being lured from one town to another. People aren’t being lured to go from Basin to Lander or Lovell or Powell in a para position. So keep that in mind.”
Crouse asked Kerby to restate his recommendation to the board. He said “My recommendation is to go 36 hours, and tell our classified staff because this is a job on a year to year basis, you’re an at will employee. This is what we are doing…36 hours. There is not an option to go 34 hours,” said Kerby.
The discussion continued and included if the food service staff should also be required to work 36 hours instead of the 35 hours they are currently at.
Kampell moved that the discussion be tabled until the district could get a better idea on how much it was going to cost. Kerby said he has to send letters to the paras that there is no longer contracts between them and the district, rather there is a understanding. He isn’t excited about doing that. It is going to be a tougher message when adding on top of that the board tabled if there would be family insurance. He said he had already received calls from staff expressing concerns about losing the family insurance. “What I would like to see, yes there are some risks, 100% reimbursement for the special ed, we already know that. My recommendation is that we vote 36 hours for all paras, continue 35 with kitchen staff and offer benefits.”
Kampbell said again that he would like to see numbers of what it could or could not cost instead of speculation. “Until I see that I am going to vote to table this.”
Board member Greg Gloy said that it could cost the district $48,000. He based this on the four possible staff that would move from single to family insurance at an increase of $12,000 each.
The motion to table failed. Gloy then made a motion to accept Kerby’s recommendation. It was seconded by board member Kristin Schlattmann. Paxton and Kampbell voted no. Paxton added that while he recognizes that the additional hours/insurance was a huge bonus to some of the staff no one gets a bonus every year. “That’s why I reiterated when we voted on it that I said this needs to be reviewed annually. I stand by that because I realized most of it was out of special ed and 100 percent reimbursed.” Gloy said while he agreed with Paxton, he feels that the district should approve it again this year. “If we have to take it back next year because of a 3, 5, 6 percent cut, we can say we did it while we could.”
Gloy said that financially the district was OK for the insurance this year. Next year they will have to revisit it and see if it could be affordable then. Because not only from the potential budget forecasts from the state but also because of how many staff would want the insurance.
Crouse asked Dusty Ellis, who was in the audience and is a para at the district, her thoughts. Ellis said, “My kids couldn’t have played sports this year if we didn’t have the insurance. If you guys are going to take it away from the paras, is the school going to pay for them if they get hurt?” Paxton pointed out that there was sports insurance through the school. Ellis said she couldn’t afford it and doesn’t qualify for other options. “Should I not let my kids play sports because I can’t afford the insurance?” Ellis asked. She added that there are already kids who don’t want to play sports because of coaching issues, and the kids that do want to play may not be able to because of no insurance. She continued by saying that one of the staff that works in food service does so, so that her kids can play sports.
Paxton said there was another side to it. Funds may have to be cut for the sports programs to pay for the insurance.
The motion passed. No word from the school district at this point on how the cap being set for this year is going to change any of the discussion that was had at this meeting.
BY BARBARA ANNE GREENE