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Hernando County School District, teachers union negotiate health insurance plan

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County School District and the local teachers union are in a familiar place as both sides try to hash out a deal on health insurance.

Under a proposal presented during bargaining talks with the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association on Wednesday, the district would cover most of the 9 percent premium increase — all but $5 — for single employees on the Blue Cross Blue Shield HMO plan.

The monthly cost to the employee would increase to $30. The district's monthly contribution would increase by $42.56, to $503.42.

Employees on plans that cover family members would have to dig deeper. The monthly cost for the HMO plan for an employee plus spouse would increase by $47.90, to $549.68.

The monthly cost for an employee plus children would increase by $39.72, to $450.52. And the cost for an employee plus family would jump $86.70, to $1,019.74.

Under the proposal, the total additional expense to the district would be $662,148 for the 2010-11 fiscal year on top of the estimated $15.6 million expense of insurance benefits.

The union could take the deal or use the money for other purposes for members. About 2,300 of 2,500 eligible employees opt for district health insurance, and all but a few hundred or so choose an HMO plan. Typically, the deal struck with the teachers union also applies to the district's noninstructional employees.

This time last year, as the district faced an average 14.5 percent premium hike, the teachers union tried unsuccessfully to get the board to contribute more for employees with the children or family plans.

The union might make the same request this time, said HCTA president Joe Vitalo. "They're the ones that get hit the hardest," he said.

Last year, however, the board balked on philosophical grounds, and that position hasn't changed, Heather Martin, executive director of business services, said during a break in talks Wednesday.

"We don't say one employee is valued or worth more than another," Martin said.

Regardless, union officials bristled at a caveat that came with the offer: If the union takes the deal, the union would have to agree to forgo any other money discussions for the remainder of the year. That means eliminating even the possibility of later talks on raises or other supplements for teachers.

"We've been dealing with the same board for a long time," Dan Beeman, a teacher at Eastside Elementary and a member of the HCTA bargaining team, said during the negotiation session in Brooksville. "I thought we were a little bit past this bargaining chip mentality. It's a string that seems unfair."

To be clear, the union hasn't indicated it will ask for a raise and does not expect to even though the district still ranks near the bottom in teacher compensation compared with other counties, Vitalo said later.

"We understand the need to be conservative. We're not willing to cut other areas just to line our pockets," Vitalo said. "They made it sound like we were hungry for money."

But in past years, the two sides have dealt with the insurance issue first as open enrollment looms, and left open the possibility of broaching other money issues later in the year when the budget picture is a little clearer. That is still done in other districts such as Citrus County, Sandra Armstrong, executive director of the Florida Education Association's United Service Unit, pointed out during Wednesday's meeting.

"Later (the board) can say, open and honestly, this is what we have and what we don't have," Armstrong said. "They're just not willing to do that."

It's a standard negotiation tactic to get all the money issues resolved at one time, Martin replied. "You know how this works," she told union officials. "You are welcome to counter."

School Board members, who met in a closed session Tuesday to discuss the bargaining issues, are simply trying to be fiscally prudent in uncertain times, Martin said.

"They're concerned about what's going to happen in the next few years," Martin said. "Their goal, their priority, is retaining positions."

She pointed out that Hernando is one of few districts that have been able to avoid layoffs and furloughs. And teachers in few districts still have automatic annual salary increases built into the contract. Those step raises, based on experience, will cost the Hernando district $1.7 million this year.

That expense is one of myriad considerations factored into the financial forecast, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar said at the start of Wednesday's bargaining meeting.

The ending fund balance for the 2010-11 budget year could be as low as $1.78 million, or just 1.2 percent of the $174 million general fund, Henegar said. That includes such considerations as the loss of federal stimulus dollars and the cost to run the elementary grades at the new K-8 in Weeki Wachee set to open next fall.

"There's only a certain amount of money, so we have to be cautious, and that's all we're doing," board member John Sweeney said. "We want to keep the teachers in the classroom. The money that's being offered is not insignificant when the budget is so tight, and we made the offer in good faith."

The teachers union will survey its members on the proposal over the weekend, Vitalo said. The next bargaining meeting is Sept. 22.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County School District, teachers union negotiate health insurance plan 09/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 7:27pm]
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