Parties meet to discuss Colchester School District teacher salaries and healthcare during open negotiations last week. (Photo by Tom Marble)

Parties meet to discuss Colchester School District teacher salaries and healthcare during open negotiations last week. (Photo by Tom Marble)

The Colchester Education Association came ready to last Tuesday’s negotiation session with a revised healthcare and salary proposal.

On the latter, the association opted to scale back its original proposal, asking for a $44,400.10 base salary in 2017-18, a $63 decrease from its original proposal.

The union also requested a 4.2 and 4.4 percent increase for 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively, knocking its original ask back .2 percent for each school year.

“What’s interesting about this number is that it is still lower than what Essex Jct. had for a base salary two years ago,” CEA president Joe Cheney said. “And they only paid 16 percent of their healthcare. We pay 20 percent.”

Additionally, the CEA dropped its request for the district to match 403B retirement plan contributions up to 1 percent of teachers’ salary.

Up to this point, the board’s stance on salary options has been largely based on pressures to keep increases as consistent with inflation rates as possible, negotiators said.

Colchester School Board negotiator Lincoln White said inflation has ranged from below 1 percent to 2 percent, while the budget has increased between 3 to 4 percent, mostly driven by salary and healthcare.

The board’s most recent salary proposal, offered at the March 21 negotiation session, is a 2.15 percent increase for 2017-18 and a 2 percent raise for the two subsequent years.

At the crux of the issue, and a main reason the board and union are so far apart on salary proposals, is their conflicting perspectives on healthcare premium savings.

The board, White said, views the premium it would potentially pay as akin to a salary increase, especially for healthy teachers with healthy families.

“If we aren’t agreeing that the premium savings the teacher gets is a compensation benefit, great. We’ll take that and put that toward the double-digit increase [in premiums] we’ve seen over the years,” he said.

On the other hand, the CEA’s position is that because not all of its members take insurance, the union can’t categorize premium savings as a raise because not all teachers would receive it.

“We have to look at those folks who don’t take it and make sure they get a fair increase as well,” CEA member Tara Sharkey said.

The association also tweaked its healthcare proposal, reversing its initial call for the board to pay the premium on all four plans – platinum, gold, gold consumer-driven health plan and silver CDHP – and instead asking that they pay only 80 percent of the premium for the gold CDHP plan.

It did, however, maintain its request that the board provide an HRA, or health reimbursement arrangement, to cover all medical expenses not covered by the plan chosen by the teacher or employee.

Cheney stressed the need for fully funded HRAs, saying people who select high-deductible plans could potentially be exposed to overwhelming out-of-pocket costs.

“People end up not going to the doctor or they put off going to the doctor,” he said. “The sickest people are often the people that would suffer the worst under those high-deductible plans if the HRA is not covered.”

Prior to presenting a revised offer, the board and CEA held an hour-long Q&A session with a representative from Vermont Education Health Initiative – a nonprofit that offers educator health plans – about the intricacies of an HRA and a health savings account.

With an HSA, the money belongs to the employee, VEHI’s Bobby-Jo Sall said. The employer and employee can fund it with pre-tax dollars, and the account can remain open until retirement.

In contrast, an HRA, Sall explained, is more of a promise from the district to pay for medical expenses. The account resets each year on a specified date, and the district reabsorbs any money not used by the employee.

“With an HRA, you really have to negotiate every point,” Sall said. “You have to very specific as to what you select.”

Both sides asked questions about identifying those particular points.

For one, when an HRA is structured, the parties must negotiate a run-out period, or how long HRA funds can be used to cover claims from the previous year.

“If you have claim on December 31, but it doesn’t go through until March 1, how long is that HRA open to pay for coverage from last year? That has to be in the contract,” Sall said.

Sall also discussed proration, which deals with the amount of HRA funding available to an employee hired after the contract year starts. The district and CEA must decide at what rate, if at all, HRA dollars will be prorated.

“Their max out-of-pocket is not going to be prorated, but their HRA could be. That’s negotiated into the contract,” said George Trieb, CSD business and operations manager.

The next negotiation session, set for April 12, will again be centered on healthcare and salary. The CEA requested the meeting focus solely on healthcare, but the board did not commit to that stipulation.