Carroll schools eye 3 percent pay raises

Agreements with unions call for workers to pay more for health insurance

May 30, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Carroll County school officials have reached tentative agreements with unions representing about 2,800 employees that would raise salaries 3 percent for each of the next two years while requiring employees to pay more of ballooning health care costs.

The agreements also would cap for the first time the number of unused sick days for which a retiring employee can be paid - a pricey benefit that costs the school system about $1.2 million a year, as employees cash out hundreds of sick days accumulated over decades of employment but paid out at their highest salary.

Under the tentative agreement, employees hired before July 1, 1997, would be eligible to cash out 250 unused sick days at retirement, with payments spread over five years. The 1,100 employees hired since July 1, 1997 - almost one-third of the district's employee base - will not be paid for unused sick days.

Whether the tentative agreements will be approved by unions representing the school system's teachers, administrators, support staff and service workers depends largely on the county commissioners' final budget allocations.

A public hearing on the county's budget is scheduled at 7 p.m. tomorrow in the public hearing room of the County Office Building on North Center Street in Westminster.

"There were hard negotiations on both sides to get to this agreement and we're obviously hoping we can fund it," said Stephen Guthrie, the school system's human resources director. "If not, we don't know what would happen - if we're unable to fund any portion of the agreement, then we go back to the table and renegotiate."

The Carroll County school system has traditionally had one of the least expensive health insurance plans, a perk that recruiters have considered something of a phantom benefit.

While school employees across Maryland have paid up to 12 percent of their health insurance premiums, or $4,000 a year for family coverage, Carroll employees pay no more than 5 percent, or $1,000 a year for family health coverage.

"They don't see that," Guthrie said of prospective employees. "When you look at the total benefits package, we're very comparable.

"If you knock out the benefits package and look only at salary, a new teacher coming to Carroll County might not be attracted by the salary. So we'd like to weigh more heavily on salaries and not as heavily on insurance."

Carroll's professional employees, including teachers, administrators and central office staff, pay 5 percent of insurance premiums while custodians, maintenance workers, food service employees, clerical staff and instructional assistants pay 2 percent.

School board President Susan W. Krebs has called the benefits package "a Cadillac plan" that many employees do not fully appreciate and that prospective employees do not consider as heavily as salary offers.

If the bargaining agreements are approved, all school employees would pay 5 percent of their annual premiums plus half of future health insurance cost increases. For example, if the school system's health insurance costs increase by $1 million, the system's employees collectively would cover about $500,000 of that.

The unions also have tentatively agreed to a 3 percent raise for each of the next two years, which is less than they've received the past two years.

Last year, employees got a 4 percent raise with teachers receiving an extra 1 percent from the state. The year before, teachers got a 4 percent salary increase with an extra 1 percent from the state. All other employees received a 3 percent pay boost.

"This keeps us in the ballpark salarywise and benefitswise," said Hal Fox, a representative of the Carroll County Education Association, the local teachers union, and the Carroll Association of School Employees, which represents secretaries, clerks, nurses and instructional aides.

"We're in a very tough market as far as hiring new people and retaining the people we have," he said. "Carroll County is falling in comparison to a lot of our competitors."

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