School superintendents across Hempstead County breathed easier this week after the Arkansas General Assembly put some $43 million into the state teacher insurance program; but, nobody sees it as the long-term fix to rising insurance premiums.
School superintendents across Hempstead County breathed easier this week after the Arkansas General Assembly put some $43 million into the state teacher insurance program; but, nobody sees it as the long-term fix to rising insurance premiums. And, most superintendents are disappointed that the Uniform Rate of Taxation plan by Governor Mike Beebe was summarily killed in committee. “I think it's as good a solution for the short term that you can find,” Hope Superintendent Bobby Hart said of the insurance premium bailout. “I'm real concerned that we're taking money earmarked for education and pulling pieces out of the funding matrix.” Hart said the solution doesn't directly help teachers financially. “We're not putting money in the pockets of the teachers, but in the insurance companies,” he said. “But, it is the best solution available.” Hart was particularly concerned that some legislators did not see the necessity of the URT plan, given Beebe's involvement in school finance legislation stemming from the landmark Lakeview v. Huckabee lawsuit. “I think the URT proposal rejection is regrettable because, if my memory serves correctly, the governor was a member of the legislature when the most recent funding legislation was passed, and was attorney general; so, he has a pretty good understanding of the intent of the legislation,” he said. But, Hart also understands the realities where the eight school districts that would have been affected stand, including Mineral Springs. “If I were in their shoes, I'd probably feel the same way,” he said. But, given the 25 mill maintenance and operations minimum threshold, Hart said that only leaves about nine mills locally. “After the 25 mills, I don't have any wiggle room at all,” he said. Hart doesn't think the issue is dead. “I'd expect the URT bill to be re-introduced in the next fiscal session,” he said. Mineral Springs Superintendent Curtis Turner said that Beebe's URT plan would have cut some $1.2 million from the district's tax base per year; which, would not immediately hurt the once fiscally distressed district, but could have long-term implications. “That may not be set in stone because I'm not sure how it is calculated,” Turner said. “We're slowly getting some things ironed out.” He said the URT plan would have required a complete reordering of priorities for the district down the road. As to the teacher insurance plan, Turner thinks it is the harbinger of a prospect for school districts to participate more directly at the local level. “I'm thinking that school districts may have to pick up more of the cost of that insurance; that's just my observation,” he said. Local districts are currently required by statute to contribute $150 per year per employee for insurance coverage. He said ideas such as taking a portion of funding that might be used for salary increases and putting them into an insurance fund, or redefining how teacher incentives are paid may be necessary in the future as local districts are forced to rely less upon the state. Turner said the state superintendents organization has considered several alternatives toward a long-term solution including drawing from professional development funding, facilities funding, or foundation funding. “We've looked at different pots of money to see where we could cut and generate dollars for that year in and year out,” he said. In the Spring Hill School District, Superintendent Angie Raney said the insurance increases would have doubled premium costs for some school employees. “This is not just teachers that are affected, but our entire staff,” Raney said. “So, I'm glad that they found some relief for our staff; and, I do hope they can find a long-term solution.” She said the continuing rise in premium costs for Spring Hill staff were devastating the district's salary schedule, since it provided, at most, for a $500 annual step. “You're working for less money every year and that affects morale,” Raney said. She was sympathetic, to a point, regarding the URT plan. “I could see both sides,” Raney said. “But, we're provided only so much money; and, I don't see how they can collect so much more.” Blevins Superintendent Billy Lee said the impact of the insurance premium increase would have been devastating for Blevins employees. “It ranged from a premium up to $341 a month for a single individual to up to $1,600 a month for a family; that is each month,” Lee said. He said a permanent fix is likely to be a key issue in the January fiscal legislative session. “Somebody is going to have to up the ante,” Lee said. “It will affect the school districts, the state, and the individual.” He said the URT plan didn't concern Blevins directly, and would likely be resolved in court by the eight affected school districts.