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Manatee schools, unions at odds

MANATEE -- An agreement hasn’t been reached between the school district and two unions over how health insurance costs should be paid.

The matter is headed to a special master hearing, but in the meantime school district administrators, clerical employees and others will be paying a little more than $100 out of their paychecks per month to reduce a $8.4 million deficit.

Manatee County is self-insured. Although a committee periodically reviews health insurance costs, the tab has skyrocketed since 2006. In April, those not covered by a local union will be paying a higher premium.

Members of the Manatee Education Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have not agreed to pay the extra insurance costs, saying it will put too much of a hardship on members.

“We represent some of the lower paid people in the district,” said Bruce Mohr, president of AFSCME.

Food service employees receive about $9 an hour, Mohr said. Bus drivers get about $11 an hour for 10 months.

“When you figure it over a 12-month period, it’s not a whole lot,” Mohr said. “It’s going to force a lot of people out of insurance.”

Bruce Proud, MEA’s business agent, said paying more than $100 a month will place his members’ families in an uncomfortable position.

“There will be some that won’t afford coverage for family members,” he said. “I want to do as little disrupting as possible so that we won’t have disruptions creating problems in the community.”

Some members might have to choose between having health insurance and using another service to insure children, Proud said.

He admits, however, health insurance is only one of the issues. The district declared an impasse with MEA in mid-January when the two organizations could not agree on salary increases, sick-time pay out and permanent status of paraprofessionals.

“There are just tough items,” School Superintendent Tim McGonegal said. “I can understand why they didn’t agree. We’ve been able to reach tentative agreements on three to four items.”

But agreement on health insurance can’t be reached. MEA and district administrators agree the district should pay a portion and teachers should pay the remaining amount. But the question is: What group should pay the highest percentage?

The MEA recommended that the district pay the lion’s share while district officials are recommending the opposite, Proud said. AFSCME employees have to pay just as much, Mohr said.

McGonegal said he seeks a “justified fairness issue” in the long-term so that lower paid employees wouldn’t have to pay as much as higher paid employees.

But for now, ironing out who should pay what “would take more time than what we have,” McGonegal said. “I want us to get our health insurance plan back in the black.”

AFSCME representatives will continue to negotiate with district officials Tuesday, McGonegal said. A magistrate has been appointed to the MEA and the district’s impasse. The two groups have scheduled a hearing before special magistrate Marsha Murphy March 23-24. That’s the next step in the impasse process.

That magistrate will hear both sides and issue a recommendation. If both sides agree on her recommendation, they can adopt it. If anyone disagrees, the school board has the final say.

“That’s part of the process,” Proud said. “There’s a good likelihood that the school board could make the decision and not the special magistrate.”

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