Column: Small teacher sacrifices can mean big savings

How much should teachers contribute to their health insurance plans? It’s a simple question to ask, though not an easy one to answer.

But in this awful economy, and at a time when a state tax cap looms large over education programs, it’s a question many believe we should be asking of our local school board representatives.

Our state and local governments are short on cash at a time when all of us are, too. It’s safe to say most private sector employees believe it’s time our friends in the public sector start to give a little back — and health care contributions are an easy place to start.

It’s no secret public employees everywhere contribute considerably less to their health care costs than almost all of us who work in the private sector. That’s true not just of teachers, but also of other state, town and county workers.

Factor in the fact that school costs make up two-thirds of your tax bill, though, and you begin to realize just how much of a difference any kind of giveback from your local teachers union can make for you.

I’ve covered education for Times/Review Newsgroup for six years now, mostly in Brookhaven, sitting through countless school board meetings where programs that cost very little but benefit students a whole lot are put on the chopping block. Yet I can recall only two such meetings where teachers agreed to amend their contract outside of standard negotiations to increase their health care contribution.

In both instances, one last spring in Longwood and the other around the same time in Mount Sinai, teachers agreed to pay more toward their insurance than their contracts obliged them to. In Mount Sinai, a fairly small district, teachers said they would kick in an additional $500 each toward their health care coverage this school year, which was expected to save the district $100,000.

That’s a sacrifice of $10 per week for the teachers and a big savings for the people they serve.

Even with their $500 concession, teachers in the Mount Sinai School District, who contractually pay 12 percent as their health care contribution, will still pay far less out of pocket than the average private sector employee.

The average contribution expected from private sector employees in the U.S. is 27 percent, according to various published reports.

Yet contracts in each of the districts in our coverage area show that no teachers pay more than 15 percent of their health insurance costs.

Taxpayers in the Riverhead, Mattituck and Shoreham-Wading River school districts cover 85 percent of teachers’ health care contributions. In the tiny Oysterponds and New Suffolk districts, the most recent contracts available online show residents pick up 95 and 100 percent of the bill, respectively [the current Oysterponds contract was not available online]. In both the Greenport and Southold districts, current contracts have teachers paying more each year, but in both cases the current year’s contribution is under 15 percent.

Last year, Western Suffolk BOCES issued a press release announcing that veteran BOCES teachers will pay 20 percent toward their health insurance contribution this year; new BOCES teachers are paying 25 percent.

How much could our local school districts, and us as taxpayers, save if all teachers contributed this much?

Our teachers unions can even have a significant impact on health care savings without changing how much they pay as individuals, simply by increasing the amount they contribute for family plans.

Just last year the Albany Times-Union published a story showing how much less teachers pay toward their health care contributions than other state employees. The biggest difference came from how family plans are handled.

While most state laborers are contractually obligated to pay 10 percent for single-employee contributions, they pay 25 percent for family plans.

Only Oysterponds has a stipulation in its teacher contract that requires all tenured teachers to pay more for family coverage.

So we don’t just pay 85 percent of our teachers’ health care contributions in almost all North Fork districts, we also pay that for their spouses’ and children’s plans, too. And these costs are on the rise, especially considering that under federal health care laws, kids can now stay on their parents’ health insurance until age 26.

The Times-Union story cited a report released last year by the New York State Citizens Budget Commission, which found that if New York State teachers paid the same 10 percent single/25 percent family split most other state employees pay toward coverage, taxpayers statewide could save more than $500 million annually.

But our local teachers are very protective of their benefits packages, and there’s little indication any type of radical reform would be accepted at the bargaining table. It’s ultimately up to the school board members we elect to make our local teachers understand how much good they can do with just a little sacrifice.

Last year, with the tax cap looming and threats of state aid cuts coming down from Albany, the Shoreham-Wading River School District extended its expired teacher contract for two more years with no change in health care contributions.

I hope the other area school boards negotiating contracts now or in the near future — both Greenport and Riverhead are currently in talks with teachers on a new deal — make sure health care contributions are a major topic of conversation.

Editor’s Note: The version of this column published in Thursday’s paper used information from the previous Oysterponds contract, which expired in 2007. We regret the oversight and plan to publish a correction in next week’s paper. The error does not change the author’s sentiment.

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