School districts would be required to contribute an additional $19 per month for each employee’s health insurance under a bill passed by the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

Senate Bill 332 by Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) would raise the amount districts must contribute from the current minimum $131 to at least $150. The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The mandatory contribution rate of $131 has remained the same since 2004, though 100 districts already pay $150 per month. Under the bill, schools’ contributions would increase at the same rate as do salary and benefits in per student foundation funding.

School employees on the cheapest plan, which has a high deductible, contribute $10 per month to their own insurance, but that rate rises to $245 if their families are included.  That rate increases significantly for more expensive plans. Premiums increased more than 10 percent in January.

Schools contribute considerably less to employees than state government does to state employees. According to Key, it would take $80 million to equalize the contributions.

Dr. Michelle Ballentine-Lynch, executive director of the Arkansas State Teachers Association, testified that the situation has created hardship in some instances.

“We have people who are paying the districts to work because every bit of their income goes to their insurance premium, and they need some relief,” she said. “They need some help.”

The bill would add $5.1 million in insurance costs, all of which would be born by school districts. Dr. Richard Abernathy, executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, testified against the bill, calling it an “unfunded mandate.” He said that local school districts need the flexibility to choose how they compensate teachers. He raised health insurance contribution rates as superintendent in two districts, and in both cases, teachers would have preferred a salary hike, he said.

In other business, the committee passed House Bill 1410 by Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley) giving schools the option of offering American Sign Language as a foreign language. The bill has already passed the House.

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Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner

Steve Brawner is a freelance journalist and contributor to Talk Business & Politics. He is also a syndicated columnist in 10 Arkansas newspapers. You can email him at brawnersteve@mac.com or follow him on Twitter: @SteveBrawner.