Health insurance rates discussed by Salem School Board

Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Salem School Resource Officer Michael Busch, shown taking students through a computer simulator to experience the dangers of texting and driving, is about to get an official car to use. The school board voted to dedicate a 2011 Ford Fusion, already in the school fleet, for use as the resource officer patrol vehicle, which will be specially lettered as the resource officer vehicle. Photo/Submitted

During the Oct. 14 Salem School Board meeting, Superintendent Ken Rich praised the legislature for going into special session to take action to prevent a 50 percent increase in health insurance premiums that public school employees faced beginning in January.

"Basically, they appropriated $43 million to hold the insurance premium increase to 10 percent, which is certainly a good thing for our employees. We appreciate the work of local legislators on this issue. We appreciate the support of the governor because, without an appropriation, insurance prices would have gone up significantly," Rich said.

In a meeting with teachers in early October, Rich assured them that the legislature and governor were working hard to keep insurance rate increases to a reasonable level. Governor Beebe led efforts to take amount from the state surplus that both houses of the legislature could support. Izard County State Rep. Tommy Wren, who is Chairman of the House Insurance Committee, was also very involved in finding a short term solution.

Besides appropriating $43 million in surplus money to stabilize rates for next year, lawmakers voted to take about $10 million dollars being spent on Professional Development for teachers, and $16 million from a Facility Partnership Program and put the money into the Employee Benefits Division for future insurance premium assistance. A legislative task force was also created to find a long term solution to keeping insurance premiums affordable.

State Representative Scott Baltz said reducing the 50 percent increase was vital because the increase would not just effect teachers -- lower paid cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians and other staff personnel also depend on health insurance plans for themselves and their families.

Superintendent Rich said some support personnel in school districts already spend most or all of their paychecks on insurance, meaning they basically work just to provide insurance coverage for their families. He added attractive health insurance plans are vital to protect the future of the teaching profession. If premiums become unaffordable, teachers and those considering teaching as a career may seek jobs in professions where benefits are better.

Salem teachers have received information showing the new rates and benefit packages for the three insurance plans they can choose from. This year, open enrollment for teacher health insurance will run from Nov. 1 to Nov. 20. Open enrollment, which usually begins in October, was delayed until it was known what the legislature would do to help reduce the large rate increase employees were facing.

During the October meeting, board members were told of two Outstanding Educational Performance Awards that had been bestowed by the Office for Education Policy.

"Our school was recognized as a "Beating the Odds" high achieving school that serves a low income community," Rich said. "That is defined [as schools] having a free and reduced lunch population of over 60 percent of students. In the top 25 elementary schools in math achievement, we were third in the state. We had outstanding performance; 94 percent of the students were proficient or advanced, based on the GPA [grade point average]." A closer look showed that Salem's third, fifth and sixth grades were tied for second in the state.

Other recognition came from an Office for Education Policy evaluation of all elementary schools, not just those with a high free and reduced lunch population. Salem tied for seventh place among all Arkansas schools for grade five math, and also tied for seventh in grade five literacy.

"We are very proud of the students' hard work, support from the parents and the teachers did a wonderful job," Elementary Principal Corey Johnson said of the honors.

In other business, the board elected new officers, choosing Karen Coffman as president, Burton Yarnell as vice-president and Wanda Koelling as Secretary.

The board also considered bids for a new vehicle for the district. "We would really like to get our resource officer in a car that people can see and know that a resource officer is on campus," Rich said. "I really can't see buying a new car for that position because it's going to be on campus mainly, back and forth from the elementary school to the high school, the majority of the time."

The board agreed to set aside a 2011 Ford Fusion the district currently owns for use by Resource Officer Michael Busch, and buy a new vehicle to be used for employee official business needs. After considering three bids that had been submitted, the board chose the lowest bid, a new Ford Fusion from Freedom Ford for $17,743, plus lifetime oil changes. With the addition of the new car, a 1999 Chevrolet Lumina will be sold or sold for scrap.

The resource officer's vehicle will be marked to show its purpose.

During a student recognition period, it was announced that student Lauren Gotte had won the UAMS future pharmacist contest, and winning a $250 prize. The Salem girls golf team was praised for winning the district tournament and finishing eighth in the state tournament. Kaci Karnett and Kendra Pendergrass finished second in the district competition. In addition, boys golf team member Cody Faulkner qualified for the state tournament and finished 12th.

After the meeting, the school board held one of two required training sessions. The November board meeting will be moved from Monday, Nov. 18 to Tuesday, Nov. 19. After a business meeting, a second training will be held. The one day meeting delay was needed to accommodate an instructor who will lead the training session.

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