Sharing the cost of health insurance could help budget

Despite best efforts, the Greater Johnstown School District must raise property taxes higher than anyone would like in order to close the 2018-19 budget gap. All things being equal, school taxes should increase roughly two to three percent or so annually to keep up with inflation. But that is not the case this year. Taxes are proposed to increase 3.7 percent because certain expenses have increased at a disproportionately high rate.

The GJSD Board and leadership have done a good job reducing budgeted expenses under very challenging circumstances. However, there is only so much cutting that can be done before the educational program/experience is negatively impacted. The Leader-Herald reported that Superintendent Kilburn and Assistant Superintendent Cook have voluntarily had “their wages frozen for two years as their part in tightening the district’s belt.” This is highly commendable and demonstrates that they are doing everything they can to help alleviate this problem. This is leadership by example.

The increase in health insurance expense is a major reason for the current budget problem. Health insurance expense is budgeted at $6.68 million (18.7 percent of the total budget), $1.07 million or 19.2 percent over the approved 2017-18 budget. The health insurance increase alone comprises a whopping 58 percent of the total increase in the 2018-19 proposed budget.

The increase in health insurance expense must be offset by cuts in other areas because health insurance has been negotiated and the district is bound by the terms of a number of bargaining contracts. For example, the bargaining contracts reflect employees’ share of health insurance premiums ranging from 15 to 22 percent with the district picking up the balance. I don’t begrudge anyone the salary or benefits they earn or negotiate, but this level of benefit is both unaffordable and unsustainable. A sizeable portion of this expense relates to retirees.

Rather than trying to balance the budget solely by increasing taxes or by reducing the students’ educational experience (again, there is only so much that can be cut), I would ask for every stake holder’s help in resolving this very serious problem. A meaningful increase in the employees’ share of their health insurance cost could potentially save the district hundreds of thousands of dollars annually. This would go a long way in addressing future budget imbalances and protecting our educational programs.

We need to invest in education and our children.