Hernando County teacher talks stuck over extra help for family health insurance plans

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando County teachers union is standing firm behind its desire for the school district to provide extra help to employees on family health insurance plans.

What separates the two sides is $268,000 and a question of fairness. The two sides negotiated again last week without results, and now the School Board must decide whether to give.

Under its most recent offer, the board would pay $55 more per employee per month than last year, regardless of whether the employee is on a single or family plan. That would bring the total cost to the district for the second half of this fiscal year and the first half of next year to $14.6 million.

The cost to employees in the HMO single plan would increase by $11.92 per month. About 1,740 of 2,600 total enrollees opt for that plan, making it the most popular of the eight offered by the district.

The Hernando Classroom Teachers Association wants the district to kick in additional money for employees on family plans to give relief to family budgets, union president Joe Vitalo said.

Some family plans are seeing increases of nearly 20 percent, which is why the union is adamant in its request for more help.

"That's a killer," Vitalo said. "This would cut that in half."

But the district was already struggling to pay insurance costs when Blue Cross Blue Shield decided on a 14 percent increase for next year, said Heather Martin, the district's executive director of business services.

The board already has agreed to cover about $1.7 million of that, Martin said. Another $268,000 would bring the increase to about $2 million.

The Hernando United School Workers — the union for noninstructional employees — has agreed to the district's offer and was scheduled to vote to ratify the proposal at a meeting this weekend.

The School Board is scheduled to vote on the contract with Blue Cross at its meeting Tuesday night.

Technically, the board's offer is still on the table and the teachers union has not countered, Martin said. The next step could be an official impasse, which would lead to formal negotiations with a mediator.

"We're not talking about a pay raise that's impacting millions of dollars," Vitalo said. "That's what's really making us scratch our heads."

Board members say they are struggling with more than the fiscal considerations. The district has never contributed more for employees who have families.

"I have a problem asking some members to pay more than others because of their life choices," board member Sandra Nicholson said.

But the issue is also a test of the board's ability to put personal considerations aside. At least three board members have family members employed by the district and enrolled in the insurance plan. At least two are enrolled in district plans themselves.

Nicholson is on the PPO plan, and her son is a single teacher with his own plan.

Bonfield's daughter is a teacher who is enrolled in a family insurance plan. And both John Sweeney and his wife, an assistant principal at Explorer K-8, are covered — one on a family plan, the other on a single plan.

Nicholson said she can separate her own interests with those of the district. Her son might lend some personal experience but doesn't sway her vote, she said.

"I don't have a problem with it," Nicholson said. "Sometimes he gives me a different perspective on different things, but I like to look at everyone in the whole system."

Bonfield acknowledged it's difficult to put her daughter out of her mind but says she is hesitant to change how the district handles insurance coverage.

"It is always tough," she said. "To say it isn't wouldn't be totally truthful. But you have to put on your School Board hat versus your family hat. I try to make my decisions based on what's best for the entire county."

Sweeney says his situation makes him personally aware of what employees face, a benefit as far as he's concerned.

He said he is at least open to considering the union's argument again but is bound by financial reality and fiscal prudence.

"I'm willing to give as much as we can possibly give," he said.

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

Hernando County teacher talks stuck over extra help for family health insurance plans 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 11:38am]

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