Hamilton County Department of Education board shows teachers' spouses the door

Hamilton County Department of Education board shows teachers' spouses the door

August 29th, 2014 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

People line the wall because there are no more seats Thursday during a school board meeting to vote on changing teacher health benefits.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Life got tougher Thursday for teachers and school employees whose spouses get health insurance through the Hamilton County Department of Education.

The school's health plan will eliminate working spouses who can get health insurance through their non-school job, the nine-member school board decided unanimously at a 35-minute special meeting before a standing-room-only crowd of upset employees.

"If [spouses] have insurance where they work, they must take that," central office administrator Leon Rash said afterward. "They can't be on our plan."

Teachers fill the room Thursday during a school board meeting to vote on changing teacher health benefits.

Teachers fill the room Thursday during a school...

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Spouses who can't get health insurance from an outside job will have to sign an affidavit swearing to that, and school employees will pay an extra $100 each month out-of-pocket toward their spouse's insurance, under the modified "option one" plan the board selected out of three options.

Going into the meeting, option one would have allowed all 1,700 spouses to stay on the school plan - for an extra $100 a month.

POLL: Did the school board make the right decision on teacher health care?

"Option one got a little bit worse," said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, the teachers union. "That was a last-minute change."

Since the board voted unanimously to amend option one and approve it in about half an hour, Hughes thinks board members agreed on the plan during one-on-one phone conversations, which she said are legal under open meetings law.

"They had to have talked on the phone," she said.

While board members didn't debate among themselves, they did address employees who came armed with hand-written signs that bore such slogans as "Teachers Need Respect," "None of the above," and "More Work, less pay!"

The audience was warned at the outset by school board Chairman Mike Evatt, who has retired and had his final meeting Thursday, that outbursts would "not be tolerated" and that he would have unruly people escorted out.

Tensions peaked when board member Rhonda Thurman started a back-and-forth exchange with the crowd by asking rhetorical questions about how they expected the board to cover its ever-increasing health care costs.

She said teachers' unions were part of the problem for supporting the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, which she said put health care cost increases "on steroids."

"Anybody who didn't see this coming is blind," said Thurman, who said she has known that health care costs would become a problem since she joined the school board 10 years ago. "I was elected by the taxpayers to represent them."

One man stormed out of the board meeting, calling out "idiot." Other employees shouted to Thurman, "We are taxpayers."

The school system's health plan covers about 10,000 people, when employees' spouses and children are included, and is generally better than insurance offered by other area employers.

School district officials expected that option one would shave about $5 million off their annual health care cost of about $50 million that was expected to climb to $53 million if no action was taken.

Board member Jeffrey Wilson, who has retired and also attended his last meeting Thursday, got applause when he said, "It hurts that teachers feel unappreciated."

Then Wilson got a smattering of boos when he announced he was going to vote for option one.

"It's like hugging a person and then firing them," Wilson said of his soothing words and unpopular vote. "I know my little hug doesn't do much."

Susan Kite, a librarian at East Ridge Elementary School with 32 years' teaching experience, said she and her disabled husband can't afford to pay the extra $100 or find supplemental insurance for him.

"One hundred extra dollars a month is going to be a killer for us," Kite said.

Anthony Henderson, the band director at Soddy-Daisy Middle School, said the board rushed its vote.

"I'm most disappointed in the timing," said Henderson, who wishes the board had waited for a "collaborative conference" with teachers.

Local school boards in Tennessee don't have to enter collective bargaining agreements with employees under changes made to state law in 2011. That only took effect in Hamilton County in July, when the three-year teachers' contract here expired.

The law that took contracts away still allows teachers to vote for representatives to sit down with the school district to discuss such things as health insurance, Hughes said.

The process starts on Oct. 1, Hughes said, when she'll present Superintendent Rick Smith with a letter asking that a vote for representatives be put before teachers, with the Hamilton County Education Association on the ballot. If the teachers' union wins all the slots, its representatives will talk with school officials about future issues.

"If any other organization gets 15 percent [of the vote], then they get included," Hughes said.

The collaborative conference won't have the clout of a contract, she said.

"It won't, unless we can get five votes on the school board," Hughes said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.