Press-Republican

November 18, 2013

City School health-insurance debate continues without action

Again, no action on unilaterally changing employee health plan

By ASHLEIGH LIVINGSTON
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh City School Board took no action regarding employee health insurance at its recent meeting despite a lengthy discussion on the topic.

The notion of unilaterally switching the district’s Teachers Association and Civil Service Employees Association members from Plan A to the less costly Plan B coverage without negotiations has been publicly debated by board members for the past several months.

Multiple taxpayers spoke during the meeting’s public-comment periods, encouraging the board to make a unilateral move.

“It’s wrong, it’s arrogant, it’s fiscally irresponsible not to move to Plan B,” Plattsburgh Resident Ken Baker told the board.

The district’s current health-insurance plan, he noted, “just can’t be sustained by this over-taxed community.”

“This change does not affect any instructional programs,” added fellow resident Jane Barber. “It’s in the best interest of all taxpayers, including those who have retired many years ago … who are on fixed incomes.”

Last month, City School Superintendent James “Jake” Short told the Press-Republican switching active teachers to Plan B would save the City School District $443,494 a year, while switching active CSEA members would save $137,049 annually.

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

However, other attendees of the recent meeting, including retired teacher and former Plattsburgh Teachers Association President Rod Sherman, spoke out against a unilateral switch.

The pressure on both the board and the unions to accept Plan B is unfair to both parties, Sherman said. Plan B is offered by the Clinton-Essex-Warren-Washington Schools Health Insurance Consortium, to which the City School belongs.

“This mess is a result of a majority of (the consortium’s) Board of Directors failure to listen to the insured and make modifications to Plan B that would be of benefit to both the districts and the unions,” he said.

Sherman noted that he and City School Superintendent James “Jake” Short recently attended an informational meeting of state health-insurance consortiums in Castleton, N.Y., where they spoke with a consultant from Segal Consulting.

“In phone conversations with that consultant, he believes, given the data, he can put together a different plan, which is different than Plan A and Plan B ... and it cost less than Plan B,” he said. “Now if you impose something tonight, I would tell you that working together and trying to come up with that plan will probably be out the window.”

Plattsburgh resident Barbara Adams also spoke at the well-attended gathering, telling the board not to align with the teachers on this issue because doing so is not in the best interest of the community as a whole.

“This board, in my opinion, is here to represent the taxpayers and the students,” she said. “The teachers have the strongest union in the whole state to support them and their needs.”

At the same session, board members Steve Krieg and Ronald Marino also advocated for the switch.

Though it has been stated in the past that a change in health-insurance would have to be negotiated, Krieg said, that is simply not the case, as the unions’ contracts stipulate their health-insurance must be at least equivalent to the Blue Cross Blue Shield Statewide Plan.

“Our consultant on health insurance has told us that Plan B is not only equivalent to the statewide plan, he’s told us it’s better,” he said.

In addition, Krieg noted, it seems a move to the alternative plan is inevitable, as the rising cost of Plan A has made it unsustainable.

“If that’s the case, then why negotiate? Why give up something to get to Plan B? Why not make the change now, while we can save the district some money? That money could mean the difference between cutting programs and preserving them,” he said. 

“I think we have some of the best teachers in the area … but the reality is very simple,” added Marino. “We’re hitting the end of the money tree, and we have to start cutting back.”

And regardless of whether the switch is made unilaterally or in negotiations, he noted, “the responsible decision in this case is to move forward to Plan B.”

Board members Clayton Morris, Robert Hall and Amelia Goerlitz, however, indicated they would not vote in favor of unilateral action.

Taking money away from employees without involving them in the process, Morris said, is not right.

“We need to work together,” he said.

In addition, Morris noted, “we should be trying to get out of this consortium and get into a different health plan.”

While Board President Leisa Boise, Vice President Tracy Rotz and member Dr. David Stone were not present at the gathering, board member Fred Wachtmeister, who, in recent months has publicly opposed a unilateral switch in favor of negotiations, stood by his position.

For some people in the community, he told meeting attendees, taxes are a burden.

“For many other people, however, they’re not a burden unless, of course, there is a desire to use their discretionary dollars for other expenditures besides the support of education,” Wachtmeister said.

He added that he believes a large number of Plattsburgh residents do have discretionary income, and the question is whether they wish to spend it on public education and district employees’ benefits, which are used in and flow back into the local community.

“It’s not basically poor people that feel a burden of taxes,” Wachtmeister said. “It’s people who have the higher incomes, whose homes are assessed at a higher value, that pay more in school taxes.”

Though the meeting’s agenda indicated a motion from the floor was anticipated with regards to making a unilateral change, no such action was taken.

Just before the close of the session, Plattsburgh Teachers Association President Mary Lou LaRocque-Megarr thanked the board for its trust in the union negotiation process.

“I think that speaks well of our collaboration that the Teachers Association and the district has had for many many years,” she said.

Her union, LaRocque-Megarr said, will be starting negotiations with the district next month.

Email Ashleigh Livingston:alivingston@pressrepublican.com