Telling schools how to spend

Our view: Kevin Kamenetz wants schools to offer the same health care benefit as the county, but is that best choice for schools -- or for the county executive?

October 31, 2011

The term "shared sacrifice" is much in vogue in today's challenging economy, and elected officials would be wise to pay heed. When the Average Joe has seen his pension and wages frozen and other benefits reduced, the last thing he wants to read in his morning paper is that government workers are not facing the same kinds of financial hardships.

But what happens when workers in one branch of local government are asked to make greater sacrifice than those in another? That's a situation likely to breed its own brand of resentment and political infighting, and it gets a great deal more complicated when teachers, principals and other school employees are involved.

That has not, however, deterred Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz from continuing to push the Baltimore County Board of Education to reduce health benefits to its employees in order to bring them in line with county workers. Currently, county employees have 80 percent of their health insurance premiums covered, while those employed by the school system have 90 percent.

Mr. Kamenetz doesn't have the authority to tell the school system how to pay its workforce, but he can cut the county's share of the school budget by $15 million, which is how much would be saved by the county if the benefit was reduced.

In justifying the effort, a county spokesman points out that if the health benefit formula had been equalized five years ago (when the county cut back from 85 percent to 80 percent for other employees), the county would have saved $90 million to date. That's a tidy sum, considering the schools are currently facing a projected budget shortfall in the next fiscal year of between $10.9 million and $24.4 million.

The problem with this logic is that it has little bearing on how the school system compensates its employees, a decision that has more to do with negotiated contracts and a desire to stay competitive with surrounding school systems. Whether teachers are paid like county employees would seem immaterial — unless one is a county executive taking heat from his workers or their unions, of course.

Perhaps the county executive is right and teachers should receive less health coverage. The proposed 80 percent would no doubt keep them ahead of many in the private sector. It's not hard to find employers who offer little to no health insurance benefit these days — a prime reason why President Barack Obama's health care reform law was so desperately needed.

But the convenience of elected leaders annoyed by the pay disparity shouldn't be high on the list of reasons why such a change might be justified. Is it the best way for the county school system to save $15 million? Will it affect teacher and principal recruitment and retention? How does it compare to how surrounding jurisdictions compensate their educators?

In neighboring Howard County, for instance, county workers have 85 percent to 90 percent of their health care premiums covered by the county (depending on whether they opt for the PPO or HMO plans). Meanwhile, the county school system pays 90 percent for employees hired prior to July 1 and 87 percent for those hired since then.

Mr. Kamenetz certainly has the right to reduce the county's support for schools (assuming it doesn't run afoul of the state maintenance of effort requirement). He can even recommend the county schools take the cut in health care (a timely recommendation, given that next year's teacher contract is currently being negotiated).

But he ought to do his homework first and consider the impact of the cut on the quality of county schools and not just on himself or his county workforce. That's a reasonable expectation of any county executive, and particularly one who touted his support for education so highly in television ads aired just last year, when he was running for office.

Earlier this year, the school board pared a similar amount of money from the budget and eliminated nearly 200 high school teaching jobs in the process. One can only hope that this cut won't result in similar action next spring.

If the county executive wants a greater say in how the schools spend money, he ought to ask the General Assembly to give him authority to appoint school board members. To our knowledge, his desire for greater oversight of the system's budget can't be accomplished any other way.

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