By DAVID CARKHUFF
MEREDITH — Inter-Lakes School Board members forwarded a $24,317,116 general fund operating budget for the 2017-2018 school year to voters Tuesday, including a health insurance increase of $405,762 tied to rising health-care plan costs.
At 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, voters can review the budget and warrant articles at the school district meeting, to be held at Inter-Lakes High School.
The health insurance guaranteed maximum rate increase is 12.6 percent, more than triple last year's 5.3 percent hike, district officials reported. Cost of this increase is $405,762 in the operating budget, which is up overall $377,928 or 1.58 percent from the previous year's budget of $23,939,188.
"There are certain things we cannot control. One is the rate of increase for the cost of health care," said school board member Mark Billings.
"We're a lot farther along than our peer communities. We're already down to 87 percent that the district pays," he said.
Throughout this budget season, school districts across Belknap County have tried to absorb what are often double-digit increases in the cost of health insurance. In Meredith, the district's share of the cost is declining in the proposed collective bargaining agreements with support staff and teachers.
"We'll always fight the health care battle," Billings said, noting the district formed a health care committee and hired a consultant.
Inter-Lakes School District Superintendent Mary Moriarty said, "We have looked at some different options in terms of choices for people."
Moriarty agreed that the school district faced "limitations" in the availability of health insurance plans and ways to curb their costs.
"We did have a health insurance committee to look at various options, so within both contracts there are some changes to the options being provided to help address what we're finding to be ever-increasing costs," she said.
"It's exploring what options are available within the state. The committee tried to do that," Moriarty said.
Based on the proposed collective bargaining agreement with teachers, the district's 112 teachers increased their cost share of health insurance by 1 percent in the first year, 1.5 percent in the second year and 1.5 percent in the third year of the proposed contract. These health changes will save the district $76,095 in the first year, $30,846 in the second year and $30,846 in the third year, according to district officials. Total cost savings from changes in the health insurance coverage for teachers is $137,787, district officials reported.
For the teachers' contract, the district projects an increase in cost of $1,023,737 over three years of the contract, and $320,073 for next year, 2017-2018.
Full-time support staff increased their cost share of premiums and will have four health plan options provided through HealthTrust, district officials reported. Plan changes will save the district $3,707 in the first year, $542 in the second year, $542 in the third year and $1,085 in the fourth year of the support staff agreement, the district reported. Total cost savings from changes in the health insurance coverage for support staff is $5,876, the district reported.
For the support staff contract, the district projects a $534,757 increase over four years of the contract and $189,513 for next year, 2017-2018.
The school board tried to tackle cost-sharing with teachers, Billings said. He said the teachers' contract will bring down the district's share of health insurance costs to 83 percent at the end of the contract.
"That does not end the discussion," he added.
Uncertainty over the fate of the federal Affordable Care Act and volatility in the marketplace, as insurers bow out of the ACA, could leave school boards struggling with a new set of challenges, he said.
In the last go-around of negotiations, the school board and teachers settled on a two-year contract to avoid what was then a 2018 "Cadillac Tax" assessment under the ACA, Billings said.
"There was no way that we could allow that 40 percent tax, and most if not all health plans out there were Cadillac plans," he said.
The federal government subsequently pushed out the "Cadillac Tax" assessment to 2020, so school districts have a few more years to avoid that tax. Billings noted that by then, the ACA or at least the tax may be gone.