Teachers, board talk weighty decisionsSuperior school district staff and teachers voiced their concerns during Monday’s school board meeting over proposed changes to health insurance and new employee handbooks, which will take the place of union contracts after they expire.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
Superior school district staff and teachers voiced their concerns during Monday’s school board meeting over proposed changes to health insurance and new employee handbooks, which will take the place of union contracts after they expire.
“I wanted to hear what everybody had to say,” said Superior School Board President Len Albrecht. “I wanted to hear what the frustrations are. It’s created questions in my mind and I think it’s created questions in other board members’ minds that we want answers before we make that final decision.”
That didn’t make the upcoming decisions any easier.
“We hate this situation,” board member Christina Kintop told the crowd of more than 100 teachers and support staff.
The district has to fill a $700,000 budget hole, said board member Mary Klun.
“We have to cut X and there’s so many rocks you can look under,” Albrecht said. “You just run out of places to find it.”
You make a list, Klun said.
“Should we lay off teachers, should we change insurance, should we cut these bus routes?” she said. “And obviously, nobody wants to do any of those. But up here, we’ve got to decide.”
Whatever the choice, Albrecht said, it will be painful. The current proposal provides $1.5 million in health cost savings and offers teachers and staff approximately $900,000 in salary increases, Klun said.
The new health insurance plan for employees would no longer include a co-insurance split before the deductible is met. Instead, total out-of-pocket expenses would max out at $3,000 for an individual and $6,000 for a family before coverage kicked in. The proposal also includes a carrier change.
For 15 years, Jodie Rudnicki has taught in the Superior School District. She loves the people she works with, the schools and the kids.
“I never even thought about teaching someplace else until a couple of weeks ago,” Rudnicki said.
The proposed health insurance changes have her re-evaluating whether she can afford to stay. With an unemployed husband and a son who takes medication for ADHD, the change could devastate Rudnicki’s family finances.
“It’s the prescriptions, that’s what really scares me,” she said. Right now their pharmacy bill is $100 a month thanks to the co-pay, and sometimes Rudnicki’s son must go without medicine for a few days until her paycheck comes in. Under the new plan, those costs would rise to $700 per month until the deductible is met.
“How can somebody save up for that?” Rudnicki asked members of the Superior School Board.
Michele Conlan, too, is concerned about prescription coverage. Her 2-year-old daughter needs daily growth hormone shots and medicine to control hypoglycemia. Conlan said she expected her pharmacy bill alone to be $1,525 per month under the proposed plan.
“It’s beyond overwhelming,” said the Lake Superior Elementary School teacher, whose husband is also a state employee. “I don’t know how we’re going to pay these bills.”
While she respected the district’s need to offset budget cuts, Conlan said she wanted the board to know how the changes will affect real people.
“This is catastrophic coverage,” said Superior High School counselor Dana Parask.
Looking for solutions
School District Administrator Janna Stevens told the crowd that she would ask the health insurance carrier for written assurances on two key points — coverage of non-formulary drugs and visits to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. But time is of the essence in the district’s quest to secure health insurance. Current coverage for employees ends June 30. The board voted to move the proposal forward to next week’s regular board meeting, and try to get answers to staff concerns by that time.
“We have to have something in place by July,” Kintop said.
Other questions arose regarding the proposed district handbooks for teachers and support staff, which cover many things that used to be in the collective bargaining agreement. Under Wisconsin’s Act 10, passed last year, unions are restricted to negotiating pay raises, which cannot exceed the rate of inflation. A labor management group has been meeting for nearly a year to discuss the handbooks.
“Every point you brought up has been carefully discussed,” Klun told the crowd. “We have listened and we have made changes based on your suggestions.”
Bryant Elementary School teachers Trishia Hipp and Katie Walrath questioned why all teachers’ work days will be required to start 45 minutes prior to class. Elementary school teachers arrive that early in order to prepare daily lessons, set up centers, do mandated recordkeeping and more.
“We feel our most important job is as teachers,” Hipp said. “We respectfully ask you to let us continue to make decisions on the best use of time.”
Jennifer Helenius, who teaches at Northern Lights Elementary School, questioned a new policy that cuts the number of paychecks from 26 to 22. Although it will be the same amount of money, she said, trying to save up for those summer months without a paycheck will be difficult. On top of all the other changes, she said, it felt like “just one more kick in the head.”
The only way to keep the 26-check format is if 100 percent of employees want it, Stevens said. Otherwise, it would require extra staff to do two different systems.
“We need to feel we’re in this together,” said Kim Kohlhaas, president of the Superior Federation of Teachers. The staff feels that the district is choosing to make huge changes, she said, and they have no idea what working conditions could be in the coming school year. Kohlhaas asked the board to table decisions on the handbooks until their July meeting. With a split vote, the board voted to move the handbooks ahead to next week’s meeting.
Nothing is set in stone yet.
“We’ve still got to sit down for a long time Thursday and go through it all again,” Albrecht said. A special closed board meeting is set for Thursday. What gets hammered out there will be moved forward to the board meeting Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Superior Middle School multi-purpose room.
Board members said they could understand employee frustrations. There have been a lot of changes over the past year, and they keep piling up. Albrecht questioned whether all the changes need to take place at once.
“Why can’t we do some of it now, some next year, make it more palatable?” he said. “I want to discuss that on Thursday.”
The board is sympathetic to teachers and support staff, said school board member John Hendrickson.
“The agenda really is the kids and what’s best for the kids,” he said.