Student Well-Being Reporter's Notebook

District Health Costs Dominate Concerns of Business Officials

By Joetta L. Sack — November 01, 2005 4 min read
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Finding ways to control rising health-care costs was a leading topic here at the annual meeting of the Association of School Business Officials International.

While most officials reported seeing double-digit increases in their districts’ health-insurance costs over the past two years, the Shaumberg, Ill., public schools stood out during the Oct. 21-24 ASBO meeting for actually getting reduced premiums.

After a dramatic rise in the district’s premiums in the 2003-04 school year, Mohsin Dada, Shaumberg’s assistant superintendent for business services, worked with a cost-reduction consultant to find ways to reduce the 14,100-student district’s health-care bills.

First, Mr. Dada said, he negotiated a lower fee for the broker who handled the claims. The district then looked at how health-care related funds were being spent, educated employees about ways to control costs, and introduced a wellness plan for employees.

Mr. Dada and other panelists at health-care sessions here agreed that one reason districts have been hit hard by rising insurance premiums is that, unlike private-sector employers, they tend to offer benefits for employees’ spouses and children at little or no cost.

“It’s better to give a half-percentage raise than give a little on benefits,” given that health costs can increase dramatically in a year and districts have little control over those costs, Mr. Dada said. He advises districts to require employees to pay a portion of their individual health-insurance expenses and a large portion of their families’ coverage.

Officials in Greendale, Wis., worked with union representatives to build an employee-wellness program. Called Rx: Health!, the program is in its second year and includes nearly all employees.

The 2,400-student district offers a discount in exchange for joining the wellness program of about $200 each year on enrollee contributions to health-insurance premiums. Employees who sign on to the program are required to exercise at least three times a week, have all age-appropriate health screenings, refrain from using tobacco products, and take a health-risk survey. Employees may also form four-member teams to win points for exercise and weight loss; the winning teams receive gift certificates and other prizes.

The district spent about $6,000 on the services the first year, but found that its staff used 7 percent fewer sick days and lost a total of 690 pounds.

Most school districts are offsetting higher health-care costs with reductions in other areas of their budgets, most often facility maintenance, teaching positions, technology upgrades, and professional development, according to the Reston, Va.-based ASBO.

But even in tough financial times, districts should have strategic plans for maintaining investments in school buildings, counsels Roger L. Young, the assistant superintendent for finance and facilities in the 1,300-student Manchester Essex district in Manchester, Mass.

Mr. Young suggests forming a group of stakeholders—teachers, PTA leaders, special education representatives, administrators, and officials from the local city finance department—to assess school buildings and monitor upgrades and upkeep.

“The process is the value, not just the plan,” Mr. Young said during a session. He advises districts to follow the guidelines listed in the National Center for Education Statistics’ “Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities,” which can be found online at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/maintenance.

ASBO also has instituted a program, the Facilities Master Award, for districts that have made exceptional progress in building and maintaining schools. The program will give a special designation to an unlimited number of districts that meet 75 percent of the criteria for the designation.

The process is designed to help districts plan more efficient and effective operations, and to learn from one another. ASBO hopes the new recognition will help boost the professionalism of facilities and business staff members and help enhance the credibility of those employees in their communities.

More information is available on ASBO’s Web site, www.asbointl.org, or by calling Pam Konde at (866) 682-2729.

Dealing with rising energy costs was another big concern for many of the more than 2,000 attendees.

David J. Peterson, the director of operations for the Mesa Unified District 4 in Arizona, found many energy-wasting culprits during a recent audit of energy use in the 74,000-student district: computers, portable electric heaters, vending machines, and leaky faucets.

Some of his strategies to deal with such waste have saved the district thousands of dollars. They include enrolling the district in an auto-pay billing program with the local utility (for a savings of 1 percent each month), and reducing trash pickup during holiday breaks.

A top recommendation is especially simple: have teachers and students turn off computers and lights in classrooms and labs when not in use.

And, Mr. Peterson said, the small appliances that teachers use in their rooms need to go. “The reality is, you have to find the money somewhere, and do teachers want to take a pay cut or have a coffeemaker and refrigerator in their room?” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 02, 2005 edition of Education Week

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