Health insurance costs to impact school budget

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By Tom Wilmoth

    Employees with Bedford County Public Schools will likely have a new health insurance plan next year as the school system works to keep health insurance rates as low as possible.
    The Bedford County School Board met in the first of two work sessions to discuss the 2015 budget and much of that discussion focused on the cost of health care. If the school system decided to keep its current plans, premium costs would rise 28 percent, increasing the school system’s cost by $2.6 million.
    School Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch has proposed a $109 million budget to the school board, asking for $4.4 million in additional county funds—$43.4 million overall—over this year’s local allocation. In addition, his proposal called for funds to begin to be set aside to build a new secondary school in the Liberty Zone. His proposal did not include a salary increase for employees.
    School board members heard a number of options to reduce that increase and appear to favor an option that provides a health savings account for employees with a $3,000 deductible. Under this option, in which health care costs to the school system would still go up by almost 10 percent, premiums would be paid by the county and twice a year the employees would receive a contribution into their health savings account. Employees could also contribute their own money into the accounts.
    School officials said educating employees about the changes will be key to helping them understand its benefits.
    “There are millions of Americans now with high deductible health plans,” stated Board Chairman Gary Hostutler. “I think health HSA is going to be the rule of the land for many employees.”
    While board members appeared to favor the HSA option, they wanted consultants to provide some examples of how it will affect employees before making any final decision.
    Randy Hagler, chief financial officer for the school system, said using the HSA option turns those on the plans into “more of a consumer” and could cause them to make healthier life choices.
    Willis of Virginia is consulting with the school system on the health care options.
    Dr. Schuch’s budget proposal was based on the current health care plans; choosing the HSA option could save $1.7 million from that request.
    Also during Thursday’s work session, the board got more details on the increased technology funding requests that include purchasing tablets for all of the county’s ninth grade students, providing for wireless connections at all county schools and providing support to help keep all of the devices up and running. “I think this is what we have to do,” stated Superintendent Dr. Douglas Schuch, about upgrading the school system’s technology.
    The cost to provide the tablets to Staunton River and Liberty High School ninth graders would be supplemented with a grant of $400 per device through a state program. But if the board wants to include Jefferson Forest High School freshmen, the school system would have to pay the entire cost of the devices.
    Should the ninth grade classes, and the subsequent grades  in the following years, go to full digital learning methods, school officials state that training for both teachers and students will be the key to success.
    Currently each county middle school is piloting a digital learning program with a class of eighth grade students and Dr. Mac Duis, director of instruction, said teachers have embraced the concept to varying degrees.
    District 7 school board member Kevin Willis said he believes the costs of operating the digital program are understated, adding that the board needs an accurate budget amount as to what the investment for the program would actually be.
Other budget issues
    The proposed budget, based on staffing standards for a lower projected enrollment, call for a reduction of 19.5 positions, including 11 elementary teaching positions. So far 32 employees have indicated they will not return to work in the school system next year.
    Dr. Schuch noted that, while he couldn’t go into details until the official report is released, he expects “significant impacts on our budget” to be felt from the state’s efficiency review of BCPS. “They looked at just about everything,” he said of the review committee’s investigation.
    Board members are expected to discuss the cost of offering a raise or bonus for school employees as part of the budget as well as providing for more full-time school nurses at schools that currently don’t have a full-time nurse.