Spokane Journal of Business

The Journal’s View: State legislators should delay school employee benefits plan

Opinion

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The Washington state Legislature should delay approval of the School Employee Benefits Board program and look for a less-expensive option.

As it stands, the program would cost the state an estimated $900 million in the upcoming biennium and rise to $1.5 billion in the next biennium. Even advocates for the program concede that’s more than was envisioned initially.

School districts statewide would see costs rise as well, with some estimates showing their collective chunk of the obligation would be between $200 million and $300 million.

The goal of the program is to provide school employees throughout the state with a health care benefit that’s similar to what state workers currently receive. Through that program, dependents’ health coverage would be covered at the same rate as the school employee, and people who work just 630 hours in a year would be eligible for the same full benefits a full-time worker would receive.

Teachers and other school employees are important to the Spokane community and deserve to be compensated fairly, which includes quality health benefits. But this new program, though well intentioned, will come at too great of a cost to taxpayers.

To be clear, benefits for school employees aren’t mandated by the McCleary Supreme Court decision, which determined the state had to pay a greater share of the cost of K-12 education. The Legislature struck the deal for the School Employees Benefits Board program at the same time as it approved the solution to McCleary, but SEBB wasn’t necessary to satisfy the state Supreme Court. Consequently, it can be adjusted before placing a large burden on the state budget.

Many school district superintendents, some of whom would argue that employees already have quality benefits, are concerned about the impacts the new program will have on their annual budgets. The effect is disparate, depending largely upon how many employees they have beyond the full-time equivalent employee count the state covers.

One could argue that districts knew the benefits change was coming when they negotiated healthy pay raises for teachers: Some districts in the state gave teachers annual pay hikes in the 15 percent to 20 percent range after the McCleary decision. At the time, however, teachers and their unions were clamoring for a healthy cut of the increase in state money and threatening to strike. Armchair quarterbacking what the districts should have done is easy and not entirely relevant, as the SEBB program has its own flaws. 

As an example of the flaws, go back to benefits for part-time employees. A school worker would only need to work about three hours a day to be eligible for full-time benefits. That’s a lower threshold than the state has for its own workers, who must work 960 hours in a year to garner benefits. Many would reason that part-time employees shouldn’t get the same benefits as full-time workers in general. But even if you believe they should get that level of health care coverage, it’s hard to understand why the threshold is lower for school workers than for the state’s own.

There are other fixes that would make the program more palatable. Set the SEBB agreement aside for now. Take a look at solutions that will make it less of a strain for taxpayers and for school districts. That can be accomplished while providing quality benefits for our educators and those who work with them in our schools. 

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