By Travis DeNeal
HARRISBURG – Differences in suggested pay raises for educators is not the only point of contention between the Harrisburg school district and the union that represents its teachers.
A planned increase in the teachers' contract, known as a step increase, that teachers did not get for the 2014-2015 school year – referred to as the "lost step increase" by both sides – and significant health insurance premium costs to teachers also are holding up progress.
The employee portion of health insurance premiums has increased significantly in recent years, both Superintendent Mike Gauch and Harrisburg Education Association President Debbie McGowan said.
But unlike the five other school districts in the Ohio River Division of the River to River Conference, Harrisburg is the only one that has capped what it will contribute toward premiums.
According to a comparison from the Illinois Education Association, the Harrisburg district pays a flat rate of $535 toward health insurance premiums per employee. That approach means as health insurance premiums increase, teachers are responsible for paying the increased difference.
Benton, Herrin, Massac County, Murphysboro and West Frankfort – the other five districts in the Ohio Division – all pay a percentage of the employee's premiums.
For instance, Benton pays 80 percent of premiums for employee-only coverage and 65 percent for family coverage. Herrin pays 65 percent for single employee and 55 percent for other options. Massac County pays 75 percent for single employee and 60 percent for family. West Frankfort pays 75 percent for either single employee or family coverage. Murphysboro pays for 100 percent of employee coverage.
The district's portion of health insurance premiums has been capped since 2007, a concession HEA agreed to then to help the district save money. The district had been on the state of Illinois' financial watch list since 2005, though it recently was removed from the list.
Gauch said two different insurance groups approached the school district about trying to earn their business while saving the district money. One group had virtually the same coverage and premium, though a wellness benefit was included. If group participation in the wellness plan was high enough and the general health of the group improved, there was a possibility that there could be a 1- to 2-percent decrease in premiums in future years. The second group had significantly reduced premiums, but higher costs for deductibles, out-of-pocket contributions and co-pays, Gauch said. The school board opted to stay with the current insurance group, Williams and Associates, which is a Harrisburg-based company.
Currently, there does not appear to be any respite from high health insurance premiums, both sides have said. McGowan was complimentary of the district-wide committee exploring the issue.
"We feel they have all worked very hard to try and find a better option for our district with regard to insurance," she said.
The lost step increase is another sticking point in negotiations, both parties said.
Gauch said the matter is very straightforward – for the 2014-2015 school year, teachers received no pay increase of any sort. However, the current contract contained two ways in which the lost step increase could be recovered. The first was by receiving 92 percent of GSA funding for 2014-2015 payable in 2016. The second was if General State Aid payments were 100 percent by the 2020-2021 school year.
HEA contends the first portion already was met, the raise should have been given and the district appears to be holding out.
"We have been provided information from the IEA that shows that state aid funding exceeded 92 percent during the 2014-2015 school year so it is our position that the first condition was met even before the state promised the 100 percent for this year," McGowan said.
Gauch said the wording of the 2014-2015 contract concerning the percentage level of funding and the timing of when the contract cited the funding would need to be received means the first part of the provision was not met. He produced documentation from the Illinois State Board of Education that showed 87 percent of GSA funding was received during the time period specified in the contract.
But, he said he believes it will be a moot point. He said he is optimistic the state will follow through on its promise of providing 100 percent of GSA funding. However, he also said the state in the past has promised levels of funding that were not received. That's why the district wants to wait until all the money has been received before it reinstates the lost step increase.
"Ultimately, I can tell you I'll give you $20 all I want," he said. "But you don't actually have $20 until I give it to you."
The next meeting between the union, school district and a federal mediator is Dec. 20. A contract, when approved, will be retroactive to July 1.