No stranger to the microphone and podium at monthly Clay County School Board meetings, Becky Smith of Middleburg always speaks from her heart.
Smith is also an active member of the Clay Educational Support Personnel Association, the union that represents bus drivers, like her, and other non-teacher personnel in the school district.
Many times, Smith will speak the standard three-minutes about low wages and how bus drivers and custodial workers barely make enough money to live through each month.
Add the cost of health insurance to the top of the stack of financial burdens and many Clay County School District employees find themselves in a quandary.
You see, the district is entering year two of a three-year contract with health insurance company United Healthcare. The first year of the deal, it called for a 10 percent cap on any rate hikes.
However, year two is not looking as good for the district.
United Healthcare offers district employees the choice of three different plans, which all cost different amounts and offer different levels of service. Some employees on the plan are going to be hit with a price hike as high as 42 percent this coming school year, while very few will experience only the 10 percent hike.
Renna Lee Paiva, president of the Clay County Education Association – the teacher’s union – spoke to the school board Aug. 1 at a special meeting where officials went over the budget.
She lamented that some potential new hires are choosing not to accept Clay County teaching jobs they have been offered when they find out the school district does not pay any portion of the teachers’ health insurance. She said there are more than 40 open teaching positions yet to be filled as of Aug. 3 prior to the Aug. 15 school start date.
In basic boiled down terms, teachers – who have not had a sustained pay raise in six years – face the reality of taking home less pay each time their health insurance goes up.
Orange Park High economics teacher Laura Mayberry laid out the numbers for the school board at the regular monthly meeting on Aug. 3.
“As teachers, we often complain about our salaries, but it’s always done in abstract terms. I think what’s happened very recently with our insurance rates has shown us that we need to start putting some very concrete examples to things, so today, I’m going to use my own salary as an example,” Mayberry said.
Mayberry compared her monthly net pay of $2,890.22 in 2012 to her monthly net pay in 2017 of $3,041.40, an increase of a mere $210 over six years. She emphasized that the $210 was per year, not per month.
“So, basically, I am 6.16 percent poorer today than I was six years ago. I would need to make an additional $174.23 per month just to be even, so that’s why I always complain when teachers talk about wanting a raise – we’re not even getting a cost-of-living adjustment much less talking about being better off,” Mayberry said.
Another facet playing into the rate hike is the fact that many school district employees do not opt-in to the district’s insurance plan. Instead, they choose to enroll in the health insurance offered by their spouse’s place of employment. The theory being, that if the district’s “pool” of employees were larger, the rates would not spike as high as projected because the costs would be spread among the “pool.”
This story, the story of the health insurance dilemma is not new. In past years, the issue felt much like a bunch of kids playing kick the can down the street. And switching insurers is not the answer either. Throw into the mix insurance claims that run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and your rates are likely to go up as well.
Until they find a solution, the bus drivers will continue worrying about how to make ends meet each and every month. Someone has to find a solution.