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School budget vote set for Thursday

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Bus drivers expected to speak out on changes to benefits

By John Barnhart

    Insurance was a major topic last week as the Bedford County School Board held its last budget work session, prior to formal budget adoption slated for its meeting this Thursday, May 3.
    Expect the county’s school bus drivers to be well-represented at this week’s meeting.
    The bus drivers will be taking the biggest hit in the proposed budget, having their health insurance benefit costs rise considerably under the proposed budget. School bus drivers in Bedford County Public Schools have been receiving that benefit at the same rate       as  full-time employees, though they are classified as part-time. The proposed budget would mean that benefit would now be offered to them at the part-time rate, amounting to a substantial increase to their out-of-pocket expenses.
    During the work session last Wednesday, Randy Hagler, the school division’s chief financial officer, briefed school board members on insurance options. The school division and the rest of the county government began purchasing health insurance as one unit last year. This year, the county is considering taking a self-funding option.
    Hagler said that, under fully funded health insurance, which the county currently has, the school system pays a premium and the insurance company bears the risk. If claims end up costing more than the company receives in premiums, the company eats the difference. But, then the company will raise premium rates.
    “You may pass on risk to them, but they are going to come back and get you,” Hagler said.
    Under a self-funding option, the school division, and county, would bear the risk. They would be paying into a fund that the insurance company would administer. They would also buy stop-loss insurance that would kick in if claims ended up being too high.
    Hagler also spoke of wellness programs. Currently school employees may take an optional health screening and get a reduction in the employee portion of the insurance premium for doing so. However, they aren’t required to do what the screening suggests. Hagler said that most private businesses that self-fund insurance charge employees more if they don’t comply with the plan.
    “That would take years to roll out,” Dr. Douglas Schuch, superintendent of schools, noted.
    The insurance discussion also revisited the decision to change the health insurance benefit that school bus driver’s currently get, receiving the same insurance benefit as full-time employees do. At a prior work session, the school board had voted to eliminate this as a cost savings measure of about $340,000. Health insurance would still be available to them, but at the much-higher cost.
    “We had a meeting with the bus drivers,” Hagler said. “They were upset, as could be expected.”
    Bus drivers will be offered additional work, if they qualify for positions that come open, so that they can become full-time employees. They would have to have the qualifications for the jobs.
    But, some may not want this.
    School Board Chairman David Vaden said that he talked with some bus drivers and 75 percent of this group, which he said amounted to about 10 percent of the drivers, told him that they only drove school buses for the health insurance benefits. These people are full-time farmers or have other jobs, he said.
    District 5 school board member Julie Bennington suggested reducing the amount that bus drivers will have to pay by 50 percent for the first year. District 6 school board member Kelly Harmony and Mickey VanDerwerker, the city’s representative, agreed, but a majority did not want to make additional cuts in the budget to pay for this.
    The consensus of the school board was to keep the budget, as it stood after the previous week’s meeting, and take the insurance self-funding route, with a stop-loss policy.    
    Vaden told the school board that he expects the supervisors to give the schools $3.5 million in additional funding.
    “I have no hope that we  will get more than $3.5 million,” he said.
    Vaden also believes that the school system will get some of the funding requested for school maintenance from leftover funds from the Jefferson Forest High School renovation project, but he isn’t sure how much of that $1.4 million will be given to the school budget.