Rep. Tommy Wren (D-Melbourne) is well-respected at the state capitol.
His easy-going manner and ability to reach across the aisle has his name even being mentioned as a possible candidate for Speaker of the House for the next session. You may recall, Wren won over many conservatives when he boldly capital gains tax cut in 2011 against his Democratic colleagues who tried to kill the bill through some parliamentary trickery.
Yesterday, Wren stuck his foot in his mouth in a Joint Education Committee meeting that has put him in the crosshairs of upset teachers. The meeting was to discuss the soaring cost of teacher”s health insurance rates, which are increasing in 2014 by around 50%. The average increased cost for a teacher”s family insured through the program will be around $500 a month. Understandably, many teachers were present at the meeting including around hundred teachers from Greene County Tech in northeast Arkansas, which dismissed classes so that teachers could attend.
“I wish those school teachers that were out there though were at school teaching our students,” said Wren during the meeting according to KAIT. “I know there were a lot of parents today that were looking for sitters for places for their children to go.”
The comment drew the ire of teachers who lit up Facebook Monday night particularly a group called “AR School Employees Health Insurance.”
“The students at Greene County Tech were out of school today and will be taught the full 178 days that they deserve to be educated by a qualified teacher this school year,” wrote Charles Nelson, a math teacher from Greene County Tech who attended the meeting. “Part of living in a democracy is to be heard by the people. The current state of insurance is a serious issue that effects me personally. I do not want insurance rates to become so expensive that I will have to choose another profession because I cannot afford to teach. There are many groups who come to the capitol to speak to committees about issues that effect them. Do you lecture them about them needing to go home and do their job without hearing their point of view about their concerns? If y”all would meet on Saturday we would have been happy to show up. Unfortunately the meeting was on Monday. We can”t help that.”
But Wren said in an interview on Tuesday with The Tolbert Report that he feels his words were “twisted” and that he did not intend to direct them at all teachers.
“If the folks at Greene County Tech are offended, I regret that,” said Wren. “My comment was only that I wish Greene County Tech had not cancelled classes. I invited representatives from the schools in my district and I hope representatives from all our schools could have attended.”
Wren told me he felt the teachers at Greene County Tech could have been better served by sending a delegation to represent them instead of shutting down for the day and that was all that he meant.
“I know a lot of people are passionate about this; I am passionate about this,” said Wren who said he has had numerous meetings on the issue, including meetings with Gov. Beebe and Education Commissioner Tom Kimbrell.
The solution Wren sees is to provide temporary funding for the immediate issue but also the long term problems need to be tackled instead of kicking the can down the road.
“The information yesterday showed that the gold plan – which is a no deductible plan – is simply not sustainable,” said Wren who feels teachers need more information in choosing which plan to choose between the gold, silver, and bronze plans offered by the Employee Benefits Division. He would also like to see more teachers represented on the EBD board, which currently only has two classroom teachers out of twelve members on the board.
But Wren and his legislative colleagues certainly have their work cut out for them in fixing the problem. Teachers are clearly watching this one closely.