AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Senate decision on school bus driver insurance could impact teacher raises

The Georgia Senate will likely consider its version of the state budget next week, and one of the most touchy issues remains whether to make school systems chip in another $100 million to keep part-time staffers on the state health insurance plan.

It is a decision that could mean no raises, or smaller ones, for some of Georgia's more than 100,000 teachers. But the state says teachers have been paying for years to keep school bus drivers and cafeteria workers on the State Health Benefit Plan.

Gov. Nathan Deal proposed eliminating coverage for the part-time school workers, but that recommendation brought a backlash from

employees and the teacher protest group TRAGIC. Deal called it a fairness issue, since most part-time state employees don't get coverage. But as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, part-time state lawmakers are part of the same State Health Benefit Plan as teachers, full-time  state employees, retirees and school workers.

The House decided it wanted to keep the part-time workers on the state's health plan, but local school districts would have to come up with an extra $103 million to pay for non-certified school employees coverage. The Senate may follow the House's lead next week.

While teachers have been allies of bus drivers on the issue, a House memo prepared by budget staffers says teachers and state employees have been heavily subsidizing coverage for the non-certified school employees for more than a decade.

Information in the memo, obtained by the AJC, comes from the Department of Community Health, which has been sounding the alarm in recent years about problems funding the $3 billion State Health Benefit Plan. The SHBP covers more than 600,000 employees, retirees and their dependents.

The memo says state employees and teachers - through higher premiums and cost-sharing, subsidized coverage for the so-called non-certified school workers about $2.15 billion from 2008-2014. That subsidy saved school districts from footing the bill during a period when - for the most part - austerity cuts to education meant they could least afford the expense.

The memo also says the state transferred about $1.182 billion to help prop up the plan from 2004-2011.

What it doesn't mention is that, according to members, the plan's reserves were used during the Great Recession to help balance the state's budget.

House budget officials said school districts agreed a few years back to begin paying more into the plan for their workers. Those extra payments were suspended the last few years as Deal, who won re-election last year, sought to pump up school funding.

Besides cutting the part-time school workers from the SHBP, Deal proposed about $285 million in new money for schools to help districts give teacher pay raises or eliminate furlough days left over from the recession. Georgia districts would net closer to $180 million if they have to come up with the extra money for health coverage for school bus drivers, leaving less to fund teacher pay raises.



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About the Author

James Salzer has covered state government and politics in Georgia since 1990.