Bitter Battle Over Insurance
Buffalo schools, unions quarrel over benefits.
The Buffalo, N.Y., district is moving ahead with plans to consolidate health coverage under a single carrier. In fact, employees already have been sent new insurance cards.
But a state arbitrator still must rule this month on whether it was legal for the school board to change the coverage without the unions’ approval.
In an attempt to rein in health-care expenses and save about $10 million, the 43,000-student district has been trying to combine health coverage, rather than offer three different providers as it has for years.
The Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, which oversees the city’s finances, warned last week that the district could be bankrupted if it doesn’t reduce health-care costs, the Buffalo News reported. The district faces the possibility of spending more over four years for benefits than it does on salaries, the newspaper said.
The high-stakes issue has seen tempers flare. Superintendent James A. Williams and the president of the Buffalo Teachers’ Union, Philip Rumore, have accused one another of dishonest bargaining.
Unless health-care coverage is changed, Mr. Williams has argued, major budget cuts will be needed. As it is, the district has laid off 88 teachers and 26 assistant principals, who could be recalled to work when the dispute is settled.
Mr. Rumore has countered that the district is strong-arming the unions by changing insurance plans without providing enough information for them to evaluate the switch.
The New York State Public Employment Relations Board sent in a mediator to help work out a solution. The board handed the district a partial victory Aug. 29, when it allowed the district, for now, to move ahead with its plans.
Buffalo is not alone in its concern over controlling spiraling health-care costs. A survey conducted in July by the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials International found that more than 800 districts have seen health-care costs rise an average of almost 10 percent in the most recent fiscal year.
“We’re willing to negotiate on a single carrier,” said Mr. Rumore, the president of the BTU, a 3,600-member affiliate of the National Education Association, “but the devil is in the details.
“The district decided to unilaterally impose its choice,” he said. District officials could not be reached, but have repeatedly denied the charge.—
Vol. 25, Issue 02, Page 3