Press-Republican

November 11, 2013

City School Board debates insurance

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh City School Board is not legally obligated to unilaterally change employee health-insurance coverage from Plan A to Plan B, district officials say.

“There is no legal compunction forcing the board to switch to Plan B,” City School Board member Fred Wachtmeister said in a written statement that he recently provided to his fellow board members, as well as the Press-Republican.

The treatise describes a number of reasons he would oppose the change in plans should it come to a vote.

LEGAL OPINION

The board, which, at the urging of taxpayers, has for several months been discussing the possibility of unilaterally switching the district’s Teachers Association and Civil Service Employees Association members to the less costly Plan B, recently sought opinions from insurance consultants and legal council on such a move.

In addition to questioning whether it could legally make a unilateral switch, the board asked for a comparison of Plan B to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Statewide Plan, to which both groups’ contracts state their insurance coverage must be at least equivalent.

The board also asked whether opting not to unilaterally change plans could constitute a gift of public funds.

“With advisement provided, and not to disclose specific privileged attorney-client communications, it’s accurate to state that nothing legally or contractually precludes the Board of Education from unilaterally changing all current and retired teachers and CSEA employees health-insurance (to Plan B),” City School Superintendent James “Jake” Short told the Press-Republican in an email.

‘DISPARATE IMPACT’

Still, he noted, “there is nothing legally or contractually that compels the board to unilaterally change these employee groups’ health insurance at this time.”

In his treatise, Wachtmeister also stated that changing plans would have a disparate impact on employee groups.

“CSEA active employees would suffer a greater loss of total compensation than members of the Plattsburgh Teachers Association,” he said. “This would amount to a drastic change in CSEA terms and conditions of employment.”

And including retirees in the swap, Wachtmeister continued, presents a similar problem.

“CSEA retirees, having lower pension payments already based on lower wages, would really be hard hit,” he said. “Teacher retirees that retired many years ago would also be greatly affected negatively by a sudden change.”

SAVINGS DETAILED

Switching active teachers to Plan B would save the City School District $443,494 a year, according to Short, while switching active CSEA members would save $137,049 annually.

If retired teachers were moved to the alternative plan, he said, the district would save $387,199 each year; moving retired CSEA members would reduce annual costs by $87,199.

‘AN OBLIGATION’

Board member Ron Marino responded to Wachtmeister’s treatise in his own written statement, which he provided to the Press-Republican and read aloud at a recent meeting.

Switching to the less costly plan, he said, “has never been about a legal compunction to do so, but rather an obligation to PCSD as a whole to do so.”

In addition, Marino noted, terms and conditions of employment are based on an employee group’s current contract, which can change.

“No employee, if truth be told, expected to have the same contract over their entire working career,” he said. 

“Everyone hopes each year gets better, but unfortunately, the economy does not always cooperate.

“What may change might be medical costs themselves, and that may not change drastically.”

PREDICTS LEGAL ACTION

Costs don’t freeze when one retires, Marino continued, and “those of us who are retired and are on a fixed income must budget for our needs and take into consideration that cost will increase.”

When it comes to health insurance, he added, “costs may be increased by medication, but could be reduced by use of generic drugs, as an example.”

Wachtmeister also stated that making a unilateral switch would likely precipitate costly legal action against the district by both unions.

Marino responded by acknowledging that, during a public session last spring, a representative from the Teachers’ Association indicated the group would argue the equivalency of Plan B to the Statewide Plan if a unilateral switch were to be made.

However, he said, ‘‘I’m given to believe that our attorney did initially state that districts switching this benefit unilaterally had been grieved by unions but had still prevailed.”

‘COULD REDUCE TRUST’

In addition, Wachtmeister expressed concern that the unions would be less likely to negotiate increases in employee contributions toward health-insurance premiums or changes to Medicare Part B premium reimbursement given that a unilateral switch in plans could be made after negotiations.

“Now that this issue has been thoroughly vetted, its usefulness for negotiations has been reduced ... successful negotiations are greatly assisted by trust, (which is) possibly lost by a unilateral change,” he said.

Wachtmeister added that implementing recent state education mandates will require district employees’ active cooperation, some level of which would also be lost as a result of a unilateral switch.

To that, Marino replied, “I presume all teachers and support staff, as well as administrators, have the best interests of the students and the district uppermost in their mind.”

MOTION EXPECTED

The board is expected to continue its health-insurance discussion and take a motion from the floor regarding a unilateral change in health-insurance plans at its next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday in the Duken Building at 49 Broad St. It is anticipated the public session will begin at 7:30 p.m.

“A ‘motion from the floor’ is a way for the board to craft the specific action to be voted upon through discussions at that time,” Short said.

Email Ashleigh Livingston:alivingston@pressrepublican.com