By Scott Farnsworth, Interim Executive Director
The School Board has called a special meeting for next Thursday, January 14th, at 5:30 p.m. at the ESC to hear a presentation from their consultants, Hays Companies of Wisconsin, on the bids they have received for health insurance benefits. There is no action scheduled at this meeting, but it will be our first opportunity to hear the options the District is considering to replace the three-year agreement we have had with the WEA Trust that ends this June. Public Comments is also on the agenda; unfortunately, ahead of the presentation.
Obviously, this matter is of significant concern to KUSD employees for any number of reasons. We have had our health insurance with the WEA Trust for a quarter of a century, maintaining our relationship through a controversial attempt by the District to move away from that plan to one by United Healthcare. The Teacher Bargaining Unit refused the “offer,” noting that United Healthcare had a history of attempting to “buy” an organization’s business with artificially low rates, only to recoup the costs later with rate increases. Our members held on to the Trust for three years until, finally, United Healthcare gave up the battle and told the District that their premiums would be increasing by 27% (the Trust increase for that year was less than half that amount).
Similarly, the District tried to make a unilateral move to a Humana plan three years ago – one with $2000/$4000 deductibles, a 20% copay on everything, and no stop-loss provision (in other words, if you had a $100,000 hospital bill, you would be on the hook for $20,000, regardless of where you were on the deductible). Fortunately, at that point in time, we still had a Collective Bargaining Agreement with a process that required our involvement in any changes to benefits. The KEA reached out to and insisted on hearing from the WEA Trust, who came in with the plan we have currently at a cost $5 million lower than Humana’s in the first year alone!
Of course, the other consideration is that the District’s benefits plan is currently the only employment offer that makes Kenosha Unified stand out from anywhere else and gives it any opportunity to “retain and attract highly qualified staff.” It comes, of course, with a price – and we understand that cost needs to be a consideration as the District looks at how to address the legitimate concerns employees have expressed over a frozen and inequitable salary structure, all while operating on a nearly fixed budget. At least the threat of some penalty for the current level of benefits under the ACA has been put off to the start of the next decade. We will also need to watch closely whether the District’s recent history of ending their fiscal year with significant surpluses, most of which came in the form of unexpended funding for salaries this past year, continues to be a trend.
Still, there are no easy answers – not that there ever were, mind you. The public school districts of Wisconsin have been facing “death by a thousand cuts” for 20 years under the revenue caps, never mind the crushing blow delivered with the $1.6 billion cut in state aids from 2011.
Of the current members on the School Board, only Rebecca Stevens was serving at the time of the United Healthcare controversy. Mary Snyder certainly was directly affected by it as well and is intimately familiar with what occurred. I have no doubt that Dan Wade has had a great deal of history with these types of benefit issues in his previous experiences in law enforcement – probably on both sides of the negotiations table. Others were in the community, but it will be important to remind everyone of these “lessons” from recent history – and then there are the School Board candidates, of whom at least one will be newly elected and, no doubt, will be making the final decision.
The bottom line for us is that not only is this issue one that has always been of foremost importance to our members, but is an area in which the KEA has worked cooperatively with the District for decades to contain costs while maintaining excellent coverage. That cooperative effort has, literally, saved the District and the taxpayers of Kenosha millions over that time period – a history which, we hope, will not and should not be forgotten.