Education beat: Local schools and employees face new benefit landscape

The Jackson-Via Elementary “Bully-Nots” performing their original piece, “Be a STAR.” The students work with school counselor Kristin Ullrich to learn bullying-prevention techniques. Photo: Tim Shea The Jackson-Via Elementary “Bully-Nots” performing their original piece, “Be a STAR.” The students work with school counselor Kristin Ullrich to learn bullying-prevention techniques. Photo: Tim Shea

Our Education Beat coverage is the result of a partnership with Charlottesville Tomorrow.

Recent local and national changes to employer benefit systems have added another layer of planning that Charlottesville and Albemarle schools must account for as the two divisions head into budget season.

In the coming months, the two school divisions will provide greater numbers of employees with health insurance, and are being forced to adapt to alterations within the Virginia Retirement System that shift more investment responsibility to teachers and administrators.

In August, the University of Virginia announced that it would stop providing health insurance to the spouses of employees who were eligible to receive coverage through their employers. When the new rules take effect January 1, 32 employees previously covered by the University will be added to Charlottes-ville City Schools’ books, and approximately 40 to those of Albemarle County.

Despite similar numbers, the two divisions are forecasting different futures because of their health insurance benefits.

Charlottesville fully insures its employees, which means the division pays a premium to an insurance company, which in turn processes and pays claims and assumes the risk of providing coverage for insured events. The premium fluctuates, depending on the number of people on an employee’s plan. Fully-insured plans are generally more expensive because the health insurance company is carrying more of the risk.

Albemarle self-insures, and therefore acts as its own insurance company, directly paying claims to healthcare providers. Unlike the city schools, it pays a flat contribution per employee. Self-insured entities generally bear more of the risk of extending health benefits.

Charlottesville is predicting increased costs due to new health insurance enrollees. Budget documents show that the city schools will incur about $92,000 of additional costs for the first half of 2014. The potential cost for the 2014-15 budget year is estimated at $193,000.

That number could increase to about $225,000 if employees choose expensive plans, said Carole Nelson, Charlottesville Schools’ director of human resources.

Lorna Gerome, Albemarle’s director of human resources, said that because January is a time of flux for insurance plans due to open enrollments, and because many of the new individuals coming onto the county’s plan are spouses of current employees, the impact is not expected to be significant.

What’s more, Gerome  said, the relatively large pool of insured employees at the county schools—there are roughly 6,000—will help buffer against a major cost increase there.

In addition to discussing the impacts of UVA’s decision, at its November 12 meeting, the Charlottesville School Board began discussions on whether or not the division should follow suit with UVA, and require eligible spouses to receive health insurance through their employers. Nelson said that this conversation is not uncommon in the area.

Charlottesville School Board member Ned Michie said that since the division’s health insurance was taxpayer-funded, he didn’t think it was “irresponsible” for the Board to think about it. But Charlottesville School Board member Jennifer McKeever disagreed with the move, arguing that employees’ families would lose out.

Charlottesville School Board Chair Juandiego Wade said the division isn’t planning on forcing eligible spouses from the division’s health insurance, but that the division has to “keep all of its options on the table.”

Gerome said that Albemarle is “not planning on taking that action at this time.”

Albemarle and Charlottesville are also determining the extent to which they will extend coverage under the new requirements of the Affordable Care Act. Under the ACA, employers will be required to offer health insurance to employees who average 30 or more hours of work per week during their contract periods. Officials from both divisions said that long-term and frequently used substitutes, tutors, and instructional assistants make up the positions that are most likely to qualify for insurance.

Charlottesville City Schools Superintendent Dr. Rosa S. Atkins said that while the division values all of its employees, the approximately $6,000 per person could add significant costs.

Albemarle offers part-time employees health insurance, Schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said, so the extent to which the ACA will impact the county would be seen in premiums going up or down, depending on how the market reacts, but not in new enrollees.

While health insurance changes impact teachers and administrators in the present, changes to the Virginia Retirement System are impacting how they might spend their golden years.

Currently, five percent of each paycheck goes into VRS. Once the changes take effect, all new employees and all existing employees who chose to opt in will see four percent contributed to the VRS’s traditional pension plan, and will have to choose how to invest the remaining one percent.

School divisions across the state are also expecting a nearly three percent increase in mandatory VRS payments, from 11.66 percent of full-time payroll going into the system, to 14.5 percent. This would result in about an additional $2.4 million in expenditures for Albemarle and $900,000 for Charlottesville.

“We certainly support fully funding the retirement system,” City School Finance Director Ed Gillaspie said. “It’s regrettable that the General Assembly did not fully fund the system all along, since now we are in the position of playing catch-up with costs that significantly impact our budgets.”


Meet your educator

Photo: Courtesy Charlottesville City SchoolsPat Cuomo, Assistant Principal, Jackson-Via Elementary

What has been the most challenging aspect of becoming an administrator?

When I became an administrator, I quickly realized that my decisions and actions impacted a large group of stakeholders. I make every effort to ensure that each decision I make is seen through the eyes of the different groups I interact with on a regular basis.

In what new ways do you support student learning?

Prior to becoming an administrator, I was an elementary school teacher and also spent a few years supporting instructional technology in the classroom. I enjoy bringing 21st century technology and classroom applications to the teachers, staff, and students at school.

What are you doing to engage the community at your school?

Jackson-Via has a supportive community with a committed Parent Teacher Organization. We plan community events such as parent/teacher conferences at a local church, host community events such as Rocktoberfest, and also encourage local businesses and organizations to get involved at our school.

How will you respect your school’s history and culture while making the decisions necessary to educate young people for their future?

Jackson-Via Elementary School has a rich history. Each year, we honor that history at our end of year ceremony by giving out the Betty Davis Via Award and the Nannie Cox Jackson Award. Both awards are presented to outstanding fourth grade students. As we look to the future of our school, we remember our beginnings and hold true to our motto: We do whatever it takes!


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