Arrow-right Camera
News >  Spokane

Health care benefits offer divisive in teacher talks

Coeur d’Alene School District paraprofessional Toni Black, center, listens to union contract negotiations at Woodland Middle School on Tuesday. The topic was health care benefits. (Kathy Plonka)
Coeur d’Alene School District paraprofessional Toni Black, center, listens to union contract negotiations at Woodland Middle School on Tuesday. The topic was health care benefits. (Kathy Plonka)

Union says drop ‘huge’; CdA schools cite $3 million budget shortfall

Contract negotiations between the Coeur d’Alene School District administration and its teachers union were tense Tuesday night as the two battled about health care benefits.

The district’s proposal would double premiums, increase deductibles and offer no coverage for families. It also would establish health savings accounts for employees.

“This is insanity,” said teacher Michael Emory, who was among more than 350 union members who attended the public negotiation between the district and the Coeur d’Alene Education Association. “This is unconscionable.”

The district’s proposal on benefits is like no other that union members could recall in recent history.

“It’s quite the drop,” said Kristi Milan, union president. “It’s a huge difference.”

The coverage for employees’ family members would go from 71 percent to zero; deductibles would go from $200, $400 and $600 to $2,000 and $4,000; and an employee’s premium would increase by a minimum of $333 per month, according to the proposal. Also, the plan offers no prescription drug coverage.

If an employee, “God forbid, has a baby,” she would have to pay $15,000 out of pocket, Milan said.

District negotiators emphasized that there’s a shortfall of more than $3 million in the district’s budget, and the “biggest bucket” is salary and benefits, which make up 90 percent of the budget, said Kelly Ostrom, the district’s human resource director and lead negotiator. “We’ve done a good job of keeping our benefits (thus far).”

The union team contended the district uses safe budgeting, often leaving a surplus in the budget. The union representatives contend the administration and board members should have given voters a chance to approve more money in the levy to help pay for the budget gap.

“We felt incredibly disrespected by the proposal,” said union negotiator Derek Kohles.

An Idaho Education Association representative who attended the meeting to support the union said the proposal was the worst she’d seen in the North Idaho region.

Negotiators looked solemn as they sought to keep the district’s proposal from going through.

“I was disappointed when I heard the district’s proposal,” said Michael Lee, an eighth-grade science teacher. “We’ve already been going backwards on benefits for a long time.”

Coeur d’Alene teachers have not had raises for five years, and with each change in benefits they’ve received a reduction in pay. The salary range for Idaho teachers is $31,000 to $56,000.

“You proposed a plan that would not only hurt people but impoverish people,” said Tim Sandford, lead negotiator for the union.

If the proposal passed, the benefit plan would apply to all employees, including administrators, officials said.

District negotiators want to use a health savings plan rather than “give money to insurance companies,” said Coeur d’Alene School District trustee Tom Hamilton.

The district’s proposal would save $2.6 million, $800,000 of which would be put into health savings accounts for employees. After an initial $1,000 per employee, contributions to the accounts by employees would be matched by the district up to $1,000 a year, officials said.

“Insurance is a bad bargain,” Hamilton said.

He said only 85 percent of employees would be adversely affected by this plan, and the district needs to find a way to cut 5 percent of what’s currently spent on salary and benefits.

“We really can’t think of any other things to cut,” he said.

The union’s counteroffer would basically keep the current benefits package in place.

“We wanted to make three points tonight,” Milan said. “We don’t believe the budget is as bad as they say it is, it should not be on the backs of teachers, and if this goes through we will not be able to keep top-quality people.”