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School district cheats employees on health insurance


When the county school district ran up a $7 million deficit in its self-insured employee health plan two years ago, the School Board imposed stiff rate increases on employees to make the fund solvent going forward, but pledged not to make workers pay off the shortfall, which had resulted from poor management.

Now the outgoing School Board has reneged on that promise.

At the time the $7 million deficit came to light, the teachers’ union tried to fight off stiff premium hikes, claiming the district had the cash to make the fund solvent, but lost that fight when negotiations ended up in impasse. The School Board imposed the rate hikes on 1,100 teachers and the rest of the district’s employees in December 2016.

But in several public meetings, the School Board promised the premium hikes would only be used to cover current costs – not make up the deficit, which the School Board and the school district committed to paying off out of district funds over a four-year period.

The promise was memorialized in an Oct. 17, 2017 letter from Assistant Superintendent of Finance Carter Morrison to the Florida Department of Insurance, which oversees the financial viability of self-insurance programs like the one in place at the school district. The district had already paid $2.3 million into the health insurance fund when the letter was written, Morrison said, and $1.56 million would be paid in each of the next three years.

The district made a second payment the following year, but this year the School Board passed a budget that reneges on the third payment, claiming the deficit is gone and no payment is necessary.

That means the employee premium hikes – which were supposedly calculated to only cover future costs – were actually figured in such a way as to pay off a big chunk of the $7 million shortfall.

Shawn Frost, Dale Simchick and Charles Searcy were on the School Board when the promise was made to the teachers, but they saw no problem with the way things worked out.

In its current contract negotiations with the school district, the teachers’ union is fighting to recover money it believes was unfairly taken from its members.

The union is asking the board to pay $60 more per month of each employee’s insurance premium for 12 months, reducing the amount employees have deducted from their checks and adding up to approximately $1.56 million, union president Liz Cannon said.

That request has been on the table for half a year but contract negotiations have been in limbo because of personnel disarray at the district.

The union’s three-year contract expired in June but Assistant Superintendent of Human Services Bruce Green, who had been negotiating for the school district, resigned the same month. Jayne Purcell was hired to replace Green, but then she went on leave, and the district had no lead negotiator for months.

Other school district managers could have been assigned to lead the negotiations, said Cannon, who believes the failure to appoint a top negotiator shows a “lack of good-faith effort.” 

Executive Director of Human Services Edwina Suit and Assistant Principal Kelly Ward “have been sitting across from us for several years,” Cannon said, yet the School Board didn’t give them authority to negotiate.

After months of delay, the district finally hired an outside attorney, Wayne Helsby of Allen Norton & Blue, as its lead negotiator.

At Helsby’s first meeting with the teachers union on Oct. 27, Cannon said, “They are willing to pay your fee and then tell us, ‘We don’t have the money to pay for your proposals.’ We feel that’s a slap in the face.”

Helsby repeatedly said, “I can’t do anything about what took place in the past,” and admitted he had no authority to negotiate until he met with the new School Board later this month.