By Rachel Christian

Staff Writer

Osceola County School District faculty and staff stand to receive pay increases this upcoming school year.

It was exciting news for Heather Rish, a special education math teacher in Celebration, and her husband Steven, a computer technician who works at the same public school.

But the couple said their excitement quickly faded when they saw the district’s proposed health insurance plan change.

“The proposal, as a family, would cost us about $2,000 more a year,” said Heather Rish, who has been an Osceola County teacher for six years. “We don’t make a lot of money as it is.”

Heather has employee-only coverage for herself, and her husband has employee plus child coverage for their autistic son, Steven Zachary.

The couple stands to pay $2,380 more a year in combined monthly premiums increases, a $700 hike in their deductibles and $35 more in co-pay costs each time they visit a specialist.

The Rishs said they’re already stretched thin financially; the couple sold their second car last year and Heather picked up a part-time tutoring job after school to help pay bills.

The couple said they’re worried what the recent proposal may mean for their family’s future.

“I just want to do a job that I love and make a living,” Heather said. “It doesn’t have to be a great living. I don’t mind sharing a car with my husband or clipping coupons. I just want us to keep a roof over everyone’s head and keep everyone healthy.”

Educators and support staff stand to receive a $1,000 non-re-occurring bonus, according to a school district press release sent out last week. Additional wage increases ranging from $850 to $1,250 are also on the table for those deemed “effective” or “highly effective” during evaluations.

“They’re offering more money than they have in quite some time,” said Apryle Jackson, president of Osceola County Education Association, the union that represents district faculty and staff.

But Jackson said her group is concerned about a hike in insurance costs that she said would “eat up” most, if not all, of that extra money, leaving employees like Heather and Steven Rish with less than what they made before.

By the numbers

Osceola County School District offers three coverage options to the 6,626 employees it insures. The most popular plan is called Wellness Local Plus, which offers a lower deductible than the other two plans with higher monthly contributions from employees who have a spouse or child enrolled on their plan. Single employees currently pay $0 a month under Wellness Local Plus.

According to the School Board Salary and Benefits Negotiation Proposal for 2018-2019, staff could pay $2,560 more per year for health insurance if they have a spouse on their plan, and $4,440 more for the family plan.

Those enrolled in basic employee-only coverage will still have a $0 monthly premium – at the price of a higher deductible – while those on the popular Wellness Local Plus plan would begin paying $41.60 a month, or $500 a year.

Why are costs going up?

According to School District Chief Financial Officer Sarah Graber, the proposal is a reaction to skyrocketing healthcare costs.

“Health insurance costs for employees haven’t increased in four years,” Graber said. “Now we have to do a little catch up.”

Graber said the school board is trying to move away from insuring employee spouses, who drive up overall costs without contributing to the district.

This is why, she said, spouse and family plans are facing the biggest increases.

It is also why the district is proposing to contribute almost 30 percent less to employee-spouse plans next year.

“We tried to soften the blow for employee plus children plans,” Graber said. “We obviously want people to have good health insurance coverage for their kids.”

Employee-child yearly premiums are poised to rise $1,800 under the Wellness Plus plan. Employer contributions from the district are set to decrease by nearly 25 percent for the same plan.

From green to red in four years

Graber said the district was in the green with “a little bit of a buffer” four years ago when the School Board approved its Center For Employee Health to the tune of $3.4 million.

That money was drawn from the health insurance trust fund, which generates its revenue through district and employee health insurance contributions.

The center opened May 2016. The idea was that employee healthcare costs would eventually decrease because staff would regularly visit the $0 office co-pay clinic and remain healthier.

But the major up-front cost of the project, combined with general escalating costs throughout the healthcare industry, rapidly drained the district’s financial health reserves.

“We really should have raised insurance costs last year,” Graber said. “We’re spending more than we’re taking in each year at this point.”

The state requires school districts to maintain a two-month minimum expense balance for such funds. Graber said Osceola County is projected to dip below its minimum health care balance by June 30.

The school district attempted to increase employee health insurance raters last year, but time ran out on bargaining discussions with OCEA.

The district is trying to reach an agreement with the union on wage and benefits before the school year ends.

Representatives from both sides will sit down at the table March 27 and April 12 to bargain. If the two parties are unable to agree on a new contract, they may declare an impasse.

Both Graber and Jackson referred to an impasse as a highly unfavorable, worse case scenario situation.

“But really, at the end of the day, the district will have the final say when it comes down to it,” Graber said. “The district isn’t going to put itself into bankruptcy because people from the union can’t reach an agreement.”