Janesville73°

Whose money? Question stalls teacher talks

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
February 17, 2008
— The new contract for Janesville public school teachers should have been in place nearly eight months ago. A fight over health insurance is the main reason it isn’t.

Teachers are protesting. They say they’re not respected. The sour relations between union and management are affecting the quality of education.


Why?


A major part of the answer is that the school board wants teachers to pay more for their health insurance.


Teachers say they pay plenty already, thank you.


Through their union, the Janesville Education Association, teachers say they’ve taken smaller pay increases over the years to retain their high-quality health plan.


Now, they say, salaries have eroded so much that the district is in danger of losing good teachers and being unable to attract the best new teachers.


District manager of employee relations Angel Tullar agrees, in part: “For many years. The JEA has opted to keep benefit programs the same and receive smaller pay increases. This has affected our salary schedule. While we are still competitive, we will continue to lose ground.”


Teachers also claim the district fattens its reserve fund by over-estimating health expenses during negotiations and pocketing the difference when costs are lower.


Teachers union leaders are telling their members they’ve saved the school district more than $7 million in health-care costs over the past 10 years.


That money rightfully belongs to the teachers, the Janesville Education Association tells its members.


District officials figure that all the district’s employees—not just teachers—have benefited the district by only about $1 million because of lower-than-budget health-care expenses during that same time.


It’s the taxpayers’ money, officials say.


The district estimates health costs conservatively, and that’s only prudent, said school board member Amy Rashkin.


It’s prudent because there will be years when costs unexpectedly go through the roof, and the district needs money set aside to cover expenses, officials have said.


“It’s sound business management is what it is,” Rashkin said.


This argument might never have arisen if the district wasn’t acting as its own insurance company and funding its own health plan, Rashkin said.


But she said that in her dealing with her own insurance provider, “I don’t say, ‘Ah, sorry, I haven’t had any claims; could you fork back some of that?’ That’s just not how it works.”


“If the JEA would like to share the risk in the years we have a surplus, we should craft an agreement where we also share the risk in the years there is a deficit,” Tullar said.


But the teachers have been asking “for years” for exactly that arrangement, said Dave Parr, co-lead negotiator for the teachers.


The district could never agree on the numbers, however, Parr said.


Arguments about what money belongs to whom come in response to the school board’s top priority in these negotiations: Have teachers pay premiums.


Most people who have health insurance pay monthly premiums. The teachers never have.


The school board proposes teachers start paying 10 percent of the premium cost, or 5 percent if the teachers join the district’s wellness program.


That insistence has been like a poker in the eye, as far as teachers are concerned. They say they’ve agreed to smaller pay hikes over many years to preserve their admittedly high-quality coverage.


And they pay co-pays and deductibles on that coverage.


“So don’t tell us we haven’t paid for our health insurance,” said Sam Loizzo, the union’s president.


Premium payments have been the major sticking point, “no doubt about that,” Loizzo said.


A compromise was in the works when talks broke down in January. The board was offering to sweeten its salary offer to offset the cost of premium payments.


Loizzo said the two sides were just $800,000 apart, but the district’s offer just wasn’t sweet enough.


Superintendent Tom Evert confirmed that statement, saying the board was offering to add $700,000 to its salary offer, while the JEA wanted $1.5 million.


WHAT’S NEXT?

The Janesville School Board met in closed session Tuesday and asked Superintendent Tom Evert to communicate in writing to the Janesville Education Association.


Board members wanted to respond to some of the things teachers said when they spoke at last Tuesday’s board meeting, Evert said, especially about about the board’s last offer before mediation began.


“The board believes some of the statements presented at the podium by teachers … really require answers and clarificaton,” Evert said.


Evert hopes have his written statement ready sometime this week.


Evert and JEA President Sam Loizzo also recently spoke about teacher morale and the possibility of Evert addressing teachers directly about the district’s financial picture.


A date was set for the meeting, but it was called off for a couple of reasons, one being that it would have interfered with Valentine’s Day.


“I’m certainly willing to hold such meetings and try to answer questions,” Evert said.


Meanwhile, negotiators for both sides are scheduled for their second meeting with a state mediator at 9 a.m. Monday, March 10, at the Educational Services Center in Janesville.



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