Commentary, Opinion

Protecting our school employees and taxpayers

By Pattie McCoy

How often does an education reform bill pass on a voice vote in the Vermont Legislature? From experience, I can tell you it is about as rare as the same type of legislation passing unanimously. That is, very rare indeed. Yet, when the Vermont Legislature contemplated a statewide commission to determine the arrangements of public school employee health benefits, it passed the House on a voice vote and the Senate unanimously.

In short, the measure was quite popular, and for good reason.  Its goal was to introduce uniformity into an otherwise complex process that caused headaches for local school boards and save taxpayers money in the process. It was something Democrats, Republicans, Progressives, and Independents could, and did, all get behind.

It is surprising that here we are, not quite three years later, and a group of lawmakers is trying to reverse course and substantially change the process.

H.81 would make a substantial change by eliminating the requirement for uniform cost sharing in health care premiums and out-of-pocket expenses between public school employees. This uniform process serves a purpose: it makes sure that all participating public school employees are treated the same way. Undoing this important measure means, for example, teachers may pay a certain share of their health care costs, while paraeducators and other support staff may pay an entirely different percentage. Obviously, this could perpetuate inequities in benefits within our public school system.

And if the new “sliding scale” of benefits slides too far one way, taxpayers will be left to pick up the extra tab. That defeats the entire purpose of the measure signed onto three years ago: to control costs while preserving quality benefits.

Meanwhile, the entire process surrounding this bill has been charted without an ounce of transparency. There has been no formal fiscal note to provide legislators with the cost of this legislative change. The legislative committees that deal with education or with finance have not even reviewed this education-financing bill!

Instead, it was passed through the General, Housing, and Military Affairs Committee, while attempts to have the Education and Ways & Means committees review it were dismissed. Having the Education Committee review an education-related bill is a reasonable idea.

Unsurprisingly, important stakeholder groups — including those representing the Vermont School Board Association — are opposed to this measure. They have said it will lead to more complex negotiations, raise costs for everyone, and increase the administrative burden.  They are absolutely correct.

It is not too late to fix this bill. First, the Senate, which now has possession of the legislation, should make sure both the Education and Finance committees review it, and request a formal fiscal note. Second, the bill should be revised to institute parity and equity by keeping uniform cost sharing for public school employees. Third, the negotiation and arbitration process should add consideration of clear costs as an item to consider.

These three simple measures: transparency, parity, and cost consideration, will enhance the bill and the current process for determining health benefits for public school employees. Let us not take a step backwards. Instead, let us all move forward together and embrace changes we can all get behind that improve the law — not undermine it.

Rep. Pattie McCoy (R-Poultney) is the Vermont House Minority Leader. She represents Poultney and Ira in the House of Representatives. She serves on the House Committee on Rules and the House Committee on Transportation.

[Editor’s note: the Senate did refer the bill to the Education committee on Feb. 19.]

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