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Health care at heart of WCPS' dissenting opinion to panel report

September 29, 2010|By JULIE E. GREENE
  • Boyd Michael
Submitted Photo,

Which health care issues are negotiable is at the crux of a continuing dispute between the Washington County Board of Education and its teachers union over the last year in the current teachers contract.

Deputy Schools Superintendent Boyd Michael, the board's representative on an impasse panel that heard arguments from both sides Aug. 26, said Wednesday that he issued a dissenting opinion to the impasse panel's report because "this document does not settle all issues."

In particular, the panel's report does not resolve a major issue, leaving $3 million in increased health care costs up in the air, Michael said Wednesday.

Should the board end up having to absorb those costs, the longer the dispute draws out the less time the board would have in the current fiscal year to make cuts to cover those costs, Michael said.

In Michael's written dissension, he wrote, "since these additional funds are not available, it would be necessary to institute a significant reduction-in-force to cover these costs ..."

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The board and the Washington County Teachers Association (WCTA) have been in negotiations for about a year regarding the final year in the union's contract. State Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick in June declared an impasse in negotiations and both sides presented arguments to an impasse panel Aug. 26.

Seymour Strongin, an arbitrator and mediator who served as the neutral member of the three-person impasse panel, wrote the report of findings and recommendations with input from the other two panel members. The Herald-Mail obtained a copy of the report earlier this week. The union's representative concurred with the report, while Michael dissented.

According to Michael's dissenting opinion, provided by the school system, he did not concur with the panel's report because the panel did not address four of 11 issues raised by the parties.

Strongin said Wednesday he had no comment on Michael's dissent because he had not seen a copy of it.

The $3 million issue Michael referenced revolves around an issue dealing with the school system's request for a declaratory judgment before the State Board of Education and the union's request for arbitration/mediation on health insurance cost-containment measures that took effect July 1, according to the impasse panel report and Michael's dissenting opinion.

The school board has asked the state board for a declaratory judgment confirming that health care cost increases and the administration of the health plan, such as co-pays, are not negotiable issues, Michael said.

The arbitration request the union filed with the American Arbitration Association asks the association to acknowledge that the school board violated its contract with the WCTA when it presented changes to the health care plan in April and didn't discuss or negotiate them with the WCTA, T. Scott Miller, the WCTA's chief negotiator, said Wednesday evening.

Miller said the union can't argue increased costs, but is arguing that changes to the plan, such as co-pays and substance of benefits, be negotiated.

Michael said each side's share of the health care premiums is negotiable. Currently, the school system pays for 85 percent of premiums and teachers pay 15 percent, Michael said. Those percentages may differ slightly depending on the specific health plan. So when health care costs increased 22 percent this year, each side absorbed their share of those costs, Michael said.

At an Aug. 26 impasse meeting, the panel report states, the parties agreed that their settlement agreement resolved disputes regarding the last year of the teachers contract. The report states that the school system would dismiss its request for a declaratory judgment and the union would withdraw, and agree not to reinstate, its request for arbitration/mediation.

Later in the report, Strongin wrote that the "right to file grievances and to seek Declaratory Judgment are valuable rights that should be resorted by the parties on their individual merits and not bargained away."

In his dissenting opinion, Michael stated the panel recommendation's wording was unclear and inconsistent with another recommendation. That other recommendation was that union members who use health care benefits will absorb all increases that took effect July 1.

The panel is recommending employees pay their fair share, but also that the union has the right to go to arbitration, Michael wrote. He stated that the union's position in its arbitration proceeding is that the board should absorb all the health care cost increases.

If the union wins its arbitration case, it will cost the board about $3 million more for health care, Michael wrote.

The other three issues Michael states the panel did not address were whether there would be immediate discussions with the union about the health care plan design, whether the current premium splits are to be maintained and whether the tuition reimbursement cap would increase from $498,000 a year to $700,000.

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