Few complained when the Pasco County school district and its employee union agreed in August to the largest raises they had seen in years.
Employees would see average pay bumps around 5.4%, with several workers in line for much larger increases than that. The deal was one of the best in Florida, with a promise of more to come thanks to a newly passed property tax referendum that kicks in next year.
Then, the checks with the increases started showing up in employees’ accounts. And they saw that, after taxes and other deductions, the amount wasn’t as helpful as they had hoped it would be with inflation.
Words like “slap in the face” and “how do we fight this?” began popping up in social media conversations among workers and their friends. Some said increased health insurance premiums for district employees had negated the pay bump.
“Teachers and staff are actually worse off than they were 5 years ago,” social studies teacher John Tisi said in a Facebook comment.
Assistant superintendent for administration Kevin Shibley noted that the district kicked in an extra $31.66 monthly toward health insurance premiums. At the same time, he acknowledged the cost for anyone taking more than the basic HMO program went up more.
Employees using the HMO premium plan for themselves would pay $35.25 more biweekly, while workers who take the PPO plan for their spouse and children would pay an added $103.22 per paycheck. The increases varied by chosen plan, number of covered family members and frequency of pay.
Shibley explained that the prices rose for the “buy up” plans because that’s where most of the claims have come in, and where the district’s health insurance deficit was mounting.
Back in March, district officials alerted the board that its self-insured policy was running millions of dollars in the red, in large part because of coronavirus-related illnesses. Average claims increased by 6% in the past year, and 15% the year before that, according to the district.
After additional review with an actuary, they projected a $10.6 million deficit for fiscal 2023 if nothing changed.
“The district’s claims reserve would not be capable of absorbing this type of loss, and it is critical that the insurance program be financially stable and capable of covering its annual expenses with available recurring annual revenue,” Shibley said.
Federal pandemic relief funds helped offset some of the past expenses, but that money is not expected to be available again.
They warned the board that steps needed to be taken to balance the budget, and those might include targeted premium increases. And that’s what happened.
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The district’s insurance committee recommended redesigning the plan by reducing expected future claims by $3.9 million, increasing the board contributions by $3.6 million and increasing “buy-ups” for the non-basic plan to generate $3.1 million.
“We had to adjust,” said United School Employees of Pasco president Don Peace, who sits on the committee. “We did not feel it was fair to penalize the free plan” that wasn’t causing the overruns.
“If you’re costing us more, you should have to pay a little more,” Peace said.
He contended that the offers to employees were generous, given the limits placed on district funding and the reality of the rising cost of living. He noted that Pasco’s health insurance premium increases were less than in other districts, and argued that the district is holding the line as best as it can.
“Maybe it will be a one-year blip because of COVID,” he said. “Hopefully we can adjust it back down next year.”
School Board member Alison Crumbley said she would consider that option, if it’s possible. She, like her board colleagues, hadn’t heard much from staff about these financial concerns, but said she wasn’t surprised.
“The cost of life is going up,” Crumbley said, mentioning the higher price tags for milk, eggs and gas as other examples that people face daily.
She said the board has discussed the need to improve its salary schedule, particularly to fix the compression that has occurred among new and more veteran employees. It also has made clear its desire to further improve pay for all employees, she added.
“At least we went in the right direction,” Crumbley said, referring to the raise agreement, which still must be ratified. “But am I satisfied? No.”
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