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School budget debate focuses on teachers' health insurance

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Teachers reminded the Anne Arundel County school board last night that the panel's actions on the proposed $437 million operating budget involve not only money, but people's lives, too.

By 10 p.m., the board had listened to more than two hours of testimony and was just beginning the number crunching.

More than 300 teachers packed the Board of Education meeting room, and nearly a dozen testified that the spending plan would be passed before they had reached agreement on a new contract with the school system.

A key issue in the contract dispute is the portion of the budget that covers the employee health care plan. Teachers have been concerned that changes in spending for health care could mean the top-of-the-line Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland health plan, known commonly as "major medical," would no longer be offered. Instead, various health insurance plans, including health maintenance organizations, would be substituted.

"Last year I had the honor of being the only Anne Arundel County public school employee to ever max out on major medical," said Thomas A. Paolino, the immediate past president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. His wife suffers from Crohn's disease.

"Our bills average $6,000 a month for health care. Don't tell me you're not playing with people's lives," he said.

Others testified about school Superintendent Carol S. Parham's proposal to cut 21 positions, including those now held by some of the highest-ranking central office employees. At least 15 of the positions are now occupied. "Let me remind the board that they are to consider voting out of a job three black females who have spent their entire careers in this school system and worked their way up to these positions they now hold," said Walter Blasingame, an Annapolis resident.

He was referring to Eleanor Harris, administrative assistant to the superintendent; Shirley Hicks, director of high schools; and Cynthia Caldwell, director of elementary education.

He noted that his daughter had been trying to get a teaching job in the county.

"It's often been claimed by this system that it cannot find blacks to hire," Mr. Blasingame said. "Is anyone here confused about the race of my daughter and the pigmentation of her skin? Is there another reason hiring blacks is a problem?"

The school board started with that portion of the budget and made no changes in Dr. Parham's recommendations, which she estimates would save $1.1 million, money that would be put back into textbooks.

In the instruction category of the proposed budget, the board voted unanimously to restore $180,000 for adult basic education, a service used by about 500 people who are taught basic reading and writing skills.

In her spending plan, Dr. Parham also shifted seven positions to a different budget category, Operation of Plant Costs, and added seven new positions to her administration. Among the new positions, some of which are already filled, are a staff attorney with a salary of $67,000 and a supervisor of employee records at $60,000.

In discussing the budget, board President Michael A. Pace noted that county officials had indicated they would be willing to increase the board's current $409 million operating budget by about $12 million.

Board member Maureen Carr-York pointed out that with 2,000 new students expected next year, it will cost the school system at least $11.6 million just to handle the new pupils if it tries to continue spending $5,838 per student.

Staff members said industry trends indicate that without changes in the current health care package, there would be a $1.5 million savings in that category.

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