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Teacher health care surfaces as key issue in AISD budget conversations

Thursday, April 27, 2017 by Joseph Caterine

As the Austin Independent School District braces for a tough financial year, even by district standards, staff presented preliminary budget plans to the Board of Trustees at its regular meeting April 24.

The rough waters are courtesy of Austin’s growth. Significant increases in the appraisal values of the city’s properties means that the district owes more to the state under Texas law. “The new revenue that we take in (from) property tax collections doesn’t satisfy the liability we have in recapture for the upcoming fiscal year,” said Nicole Conley Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer. “We would have to cut our budget to balance out that shortfall.”

Since the fiscal forecast was conducted in February, staff has been crunching numbers and monitoring the state legislature to try and estimate what kind of spending power the school district will have in the coming year. As a Chapter 41 district, AISD depends on state grants for nearly all of its funding, and a number of polarizing bills (the “Bathroom” and “Sanctuary City” bills to name only two) could postpone the state budget’s release, leaving AISD staff guessing.

“There’s wide speculation as to what is going to happen in those conference committees,” Conley Johnson said.

Before staff members made their presentation, a few AISD teachers spoke during public comment about the health challenges they faced as employees of the district. “In the last couple of years my health care has become increasingly expensive,” said Maplewood Elementary pre-K teacher Traci Dunlap. “As of January my co-pay went up to $50 and my deductible rose from $300 to $1,000 a year. There are several medical appointments I need to schedule, but I’ve been putting them off because I can’t afford it.”

Fernando Medina, the district’s chief human capital officer, explained during the presentation that this year the staff was attempting to see employee compensation more holistically. Among AISD’s local and urban peer school districts, Medina said that Austin ranked first in terms of its monthly contribution to each employee’s health plan at $524.30. As for the ratio of district versus employee contributions, currently 84/16, AISD is competitive among other districts but staff is working to improve that. “As we work with our consultants and Education Austin,” Medina said, “the target we’re trying to hit is an 80/20 split.”

“I know all the other large urban school districts use a third-party consultant,” Trustee Paul Saldaña said. “My concern is with that outside consultant they also do work for the large insurance companies, so I want to make sure we are getting a fair and effective assessment.”

Saldaña wasn’t the only one with concerns about AISD getting shortchanged. “I wonder what kind of deal we’re getting,” said Trustee Amber Elenz. “We have a lot more providers in Austin than just (Seton Healthcare Family).”

Elenz did acknowledge that nothing was set in stone yet, and she encouraged staff to be aggressive in its negotiations with providers.

Conley Johnson said that AISD will start holding community meetings this week to garner input about the budget from parents, teachers and other stakeholders. After that process is finished, staff will prepare a recommended budget for the board to consider in May, with it going up for a vote in June.

Photo by Presidencia de la República Mexicana [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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