Beginning in 2015, the Letcher County Board of Eduction will stop contributing money for health insurance for teachers as well as for cooks, janitors, other workers often referred to as “classified employees.”
“This is not a vote against the employees,” said Board Chairman Robert Kiser. “We know the job you do and we appreciate it. I am in my first year here, starting my second, and this is the hardest vote I have had to make.”
Saying it is trying to balance the school district’s budget, the board agreed during a special meeting Jan. 20 to stop paying nearly $50 per employee each month toward health insurance.
The board is projected to spend $254,000 on employee health insurance during the 2013-2014 school year.
“At this point we have truly gone through the list and there is nothing more there other than programs or positions that are going to directly impact the children,” said Kiser. “I don’t see anything as an alternative. If we had seen any other alternative, trust me, we wouldn’t be making this vote I promise you.”
Supt. Tony Sergent said the Letcher district is the only one in the state still providing the service for employees.
“They work hard and they do a great job,” Sergent said of the employees. “Most of them work more hours than they have to. They take pride in what they do.”
Administrators say the district has assisted with employee health insurance for at least 20 years.
“Health insurance has become a lot more costly than what the board envisioned,” said Roger Martin, district director of state and federal programs. “ When the board enacted that, basically everybody that had single coverage, their health insurance was free. And it was basically passed at that time for those who had cross-reference coverage, family coverage or parent plus coverage. It kicked in to help those folks.”
Statewide about 15 school districts paid a portion of employee health insurance years ago when it was free for single coverage, said Martin. Some districts later stopped providing funds for it when single coverage became a premium of $3 through KentuckyCare.
“As years have gone by, KentuckyCare and different insurances have come and gone,” said Martin. “It has gotten very expensive.”
Board Member Will Smith, who said he has always been an advocate for employees, said the portion of employee health insurance picked up by the board has continued to grow.
“It went from almost nothing to $3 to $9 to $20 and here it almost $50 now,” said Smith. “ This is something the board doesn’t want to (have to) do.”
Nearly 100 school employees have waived the district’s health insurance plan because they are covered by their spouse’s insurance policies, Martin said.
“ They are going phase out waivers,” said Martin. “If you are eligible for health insurance by your employer, you are going to have to take it. You are not going to be able to be covered by your spouse.”
Martin said the board will stop contributing to employee health insurance on January 1, 2015 to give employees the opportunity to sign up for other policies during open enrollment.
“We don’t think that is fair to take that away immediately,” said Martin. “We want another open enrollment to happen, which would be next October/November. ”
Martin said employees may decide to reduce health coverage and take a cheaper plan.
“Obviously most of the folks have taken the most expensive plan because the board is kicking in a portion,” said Martin. “It’s always a gamble. You never know when you are going to get sick.”
Nancy Ratliff, secretary and treasurer of the Letcher County Education Support Personnel (LCESP), told the board that cutting the contribution to employee health insurance “would be a really hard blow to your classified employees.”
“You think about an employee who works in Whitesburg,” said Ratliff. “They were just slapped with an occupational tax and then to slap them with this. If they are a single parent, how do you expect them to feed their children?”
Ratliff described classified employees as the backbone of education.
“We’re in the background,” said Ratliff. “No, we’re not certified. We’re not in front of the classroom teaching the children, but we are valuable. That bus driver is the first person those children see when they get on the bus. The parent educators, we are the ones that pull them out and tutor them. That custodian is the ones who make sure the bathrooms are cleans and those schools are clean and germ free. Those cooks are the ones who provides those hot meals that are sometimes are the only meals those children get. You have your maintenance people who try to keep our schools safe. Our secretaries are swamped with paperwork and answering the phone, watching the cameras to make sure someone unauthorized doesn’t get in that building.”
Ratliff said she wouldn’t have been able to sleep if she didn’t let the board know her feelings.
“Really, if you do this without giving it further study, you have slapped us in the face ‘cause we are not just an aide,” said Ratliff. “We are not just a cook. We are not just a secretary. We are a professional.”
Ratliff asked the board to table the issue and consider other options.
“We aren’t making big bucks, but we are making a difference in a child’s life,” said Ratliff.
Board Member Mendy Boggs said she often visits schools and sees firsthand what classified employees do.
“Our schools couldn’t run without you guys and I know that,” said Boggs.
Gina Mullins, a member of the LCESP, told board members she would gladly give her payday of $350 to someone else and see them try to live on it.
“I would trade with anybody in this room because it is not very much,” said Mullins. “… We don’t do our work for the pay. We do it because we love the children. It’s not because of money, because we sure don’t make any.”
Mullins asked board members if they could live off her paycheck and make a house payment, car payment and put kids through college.
“That’s what I am asking you,” she said. “Can you do that? Can you live off that?”
Kiser, the board chairman, told Mullins that he could relate to her situation.
“I work 112 hours a week to make a living,” said Kiser. “Today when I got off of work I had put in 80 straight hours.”
Sergent said the $254,000 the board has been contributing to insurance policies for classified employees is about the equivalent of seven salaries for first-year teachers.
Sergent added that during the 2012-2013 school year, the district spent $600,000 more than it took in and that money had to be taken from the “contingency fund” to make up for it.
Sergent added that since he was hired as superintendent last July 1, spending has been reduced by $682,000, most of which can be attributed to attrition of administrative positions. Reduction in travel and food purchases for meetings and school events were included.
Sergent is now trying to reduce expenditures by $505,000, and employer health insurance contribution counts for about half of that.
Among other cuts the district intends to make is stopping maintenance on the old Whitesburg High School campus, which has cost about $60,000 annually since the school was closed nine years ago. Sergent’s plan also calls for reducing itinerant pay, district employee travel, security at Letcher County Central High School and money paid to summer workers.
In an attempt to save on printing costs, more information will be placed on the district’s website. When teacher and classified jobs become vacant they will no longer be filled. Coaching salaries will be reduced.
“People retired and moved on and we didn’t replace them and that helped us tremendously,” said Sergent.
During Monday night’s meeting, the board approved the 2014- 2015 staffing allocation plan, which includes the reduction of one assistant principal at Letcher County Central High School, one less Homebound teacher, one less school grounds monitor, one less art position and one less music/ band position, and the elimination of a district custodian. The board abolished the positions of district director of special projects and director of the Continuous Instructional Improvement Technology System (CIITS) program. Sergent was CIITS director before being hired as superintendent and the position was not filled.
“ When you need that huge amount of money reduced in your budget, you have to do something and we don’t have a choice of reducing it,” said Sergent. “It has to be done.”
Even with the sizable cuts being made to the budget, Sergent said the district is still projected to overspend next year.
“We are going in the wrong direction, but it is better than $600,000,” said Sergent. “We can’t keep spending more than what we are bringing in.”
The board had anticipated receiving $170,000 more in tax collections than it did the previous year. Instead, the district is $80,000 short of what it received at this time last year.
“That’s a $250,000 turnaround on your budget,” said Sergent.
In addition to less revenue, Sergent reminded the board that it will soon be required to pay $200,000 in step raises and rank changes and $75,000 in teacher retirement. The board is set to pay $129,000 to Kentucky Insurance School Board Trust (KSBIT), the liability insurance that went bankrupt, and $64,000 for the next six years.
The district’s bus fleet is deteriorating and Sergent said new buses are needed.
“We have to try to buy two next year,” said Sergent. “That is another $200,000.”
Sergent is concerned about a drop in student population caused by out-of-work coal miners having to move elsewhere to find a job. The district started the second semester of the 2013-2014 school year with 20 fewer students.
“For every student that leaves here is almost another $4,000 that we’ll lose,” said Sergent. “I’m scared in the next couple of years if we start losing a 100 students a year like we did in the ’90s, what effect that will have? It’s just a worrisome time for sure.”
Kenneth Cornett, director of pupil personnel, said eliminating Saturday school would save about $6,500 a year. Reducing the number of holidays and personal days for employees would bring long-term savings.
“All of these things go back to benefits for the employee,” said Smith.
Mullins asked the board why four secretaries are needed at the high school and suggested eliminating two of those positions.
“I don’t think we could make it with two,” said Letcher Central Assistant Principal Scott Billiter. One secretary handles transcripts. Another is in charge of attendance. One is a bookkeeper and the other is a receptionist.
“Two hundred fifty four thousand dollars is a huge amount of money that eliminating a classified position here or there will not cover. It is such a vast amount of money,” said Sergent.
Kiser said if the board cut out every other thing that has been listed, it wouldn’t amount to the cost of the employer health insurance contribution.
“If we don’t do that, then there is going to have to be a program that we cut, teachers that we cut, something that we cut,” said Kiser. “I talk to Tony pretty much every two or three days. We have gone over everything we could possibly think of over the phone or me coming into the office and talking when I have the chance.”
Sergent said the goal is to try to get as many cuts as it has had increases in costs.
“There have been a lot of hours spent looking through these numbers and we’ve thought about everything that we could possibly think about,” said Sergent.
“It would be great to be sitting here saying we were going to be giving everyone a raise because they deserve it. It is my responsibility to make sure we stay financially stable and we can run our district.”
“If we don’t get the budget in order, Frankfort will come in and Frankfort will get it in order,” said Kiser.