HCEA: School system has millions in health care turnover

In recent years, at the end of every fiscal cycle, the Howard County Public School System has had a surplus of millions of dollars from the employee health care fund, the leader of the county's teachers' union said Thursday night.

For the past three years, said Howard County Education Association President Paul Lemle, the system has used the annual surpluses to "artificially lower the general fund contribution" — or the amount of new money the system contributes to employees' health care.

"In simple terms, the school system has been using the employees' money without any meaningful consideration, or participation, at all about what it should do when it had withheld far too much," Lemle said during his presentation at the Board of Education meeting.

For example, according to the numbers Lemle presented from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2013, employee withholdings have gone from $11.5 million to $15.8 million — an increase of about 37 percent. But, the school system contributions have gone from $61.8 million to $68.3 million — an increase of about 10 percent. In fiscal 2011, the system had $9.3 million left over from the previous year's fund for salaries.

All HCEA wants, Lemle said, is to participate in the process with school system staff that determines the health care rate teachers pay, or discussions about what to do with any surplus. Currently, he said, there is a communication problem between the central office and the union.

"I do not believe we can solve these issue with existing practices," he said. "Our entire contract is being renegotiated and anything less than a full solution to this problem will leave us at the labor board."

In Superintendent Renee Foose's proposed operating budget for fiscal 2014, which she presented Jan. 3, there is a request for $15.5 million to cover rising employee health and dental costs.

The budgets from fiscal 2011-13 were presented by former superintendent Sydney Cousin and his staff.

“The increasing cost of health care is among the principal drivers of budget increases,” said schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove. “We maintain the fund balance reserve in order to have money available in case our health care costs are higher than anticipated. Dr. Foose is committed to open lines of communication with the teacher's union regarding the budget and issues related to health care.”

Board Chairman Frank Aquino said he would "appropriately" take up this issue with the system.

"We'll take it up with the superintendent and we'll be back in touch," he said.

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