Petruzielo talked school board members through a 25-page document produced by district employees, highlighting the impacts of changes to the state health benefit plan that took effect Oct. 11, 2012.
He said the shuffling of high premium costs from the state to local boards continues to drain an already-tightened budget not only for the Cherokee County School District, but school districts throughout the state.
Approved Dec. 8, 2011, the Department of Community Health passed a resolution increasing employer — in this case, the local school board’s—contributions for non-certified employee’s state health insurance an additional $150 per month beginning in fiscal year 2013 to $446.20; $596.20 for fiscal year 2014; and $746.20 for fiscal year 2015.
Under the ruling, school boards are now authorized to remove non-certified employees—including bus drivers, paraprofessionals and technology professionals—from the state health benefit plan after “shopping” for other plans or privatizing those services. Now, only teachers and other certified employees are required to be covered in the state health plan.
“You can’t all of a sudden just decide that just because the premiums are going up that you’re not going to play anymore, that the party is over (and) you’re on your own,” Petruzielo said of the state department’s move.
In 2008, 4,153 CCSD employees participated in the plan, which led to $21.2 million in contributions from the district to the state plan. This past school year, 3,984 employees are participating with just under $28.2 million contributed to the plan, increasing the contribution by $10 million for 500 fewer employees.
For 2013-14, numbers suggest that maintaining the program will cost $35.7 million and the following year will cost $39.8 million.
Petruzielo said the “unbelievable impact” will hit employees throughout Georgia.
“Clearly, with the governor and the state Legislature saying, ‘Gee, there’s not enough money’ to be able to even fund the (Quality Basic Education formula), you could imagine after $50 million of cuts in our operating budget over the last three years alone, you could imagine what kind of a bind a premium increase like this would put the local school board in,” Petruzielo said.
Petruzielo outlined several issues with the plan.
“The policy itself was rushed for approval, few details have been provided and the terminology is ambiguous,” Petruzielo said. “There’s been no public statement basically communicating this to the people who are impacted or will be impacted, or for that matter to policy makers or even local school boards.”
Some of the ambiguity in the measure includes determining the difference between certified and licensed positions and whether both are covered, Petruzielo said. For example, paraprofessionals and technology employees are licensed but are not certified teachers.
“They certainly are licensed and trained in the area that they are providing service,” Petruzielo said.
Petruzielo also took issue with the state board pronouncing local school boards would bear the sole legal responsibility for all healthcare coverage decisions.
“I would beg to differ that when people get sued for being taken out of the state health plan or by connection (out of) alignment with the state retirement plan, which is connected to the state health plan, that everybody’s going to be sued, including the state board of health,” Petruzielo said.
According to the 25-page document, there are 38,000 more students in Georgia schools and 4,500 fewer teachers since 2008. In that time period, there have been $4.4 billion in state austerity budget cuts and a $550 million decrease to zero funds appropriated in the annual state budget for non-certified health coverage. Local boards have also seen a $100 million increase in state-required local contributions for non-certified health coverage.
Board member Michael Geist asked whether the decisions made by the state board in 2012 led to changes in plans moving forward for 2013 for the school district.
“We’ve taken the position that the state of Georgia and the Department of Community Health at the state level is in a far better position to identify the different health plans for state employees than an individual school district or a bunch of individual school districts that are trying to get the best deal possible for their employees,” Petruzielo said.
The documents also included proposed next steps by the district, for which Petruzielo requested feedback from board members. Some of the steps included establishing an ad hoc employees health insurance benefits advisory committee to develop recommendations for cost containment options and collaborating with other school systems.
“I think we ought to try to do everything we can not just as an individual district, but in cooperation with other districts and, for that matter, in cooperation with the legislature and certainly the Department of Community of Health,” Petruzielo said. “We believe the state ought to take the lead in trying to figure out what the options are here. Maybe that’s Pollyanna, but the state is in the best position to try to negotiate a plan whereby these people do not fall through the cracks and there at least is a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel and it’s not just the lights of an oncoming train.”
After the meeting, Chairwoman Janet Read said it’s obvious the state has pushed the burden to the school districts and to the employees.
“Everyone’s premiums have been rising, both employee and employer.” Read said. “We’re going to have to make some hard and fast decisions about what to do with rising costs for our employees.”
Read also had concerns with privatizing services like school bus drivers and lunchroom staff.
“There’s no expectation that those people would remain employees of that company,” she said. “There are no easy answers.”