Josea Born, a middle school math teacher from Hope, said some of the state's surplus should go to cover hikes in educators' health insurance costs. Brian Chilson

The share of health insurance costs Arkansas public school teachers will have to shoulder will grow dramatically unless the state dips into some of the surplus funds set aside for tax cuts.

Fixes to a proposal that originated with the now disbanded Employee Benefits Division Board are likely to be considered by Arkansas Legislative Council lawmakers at a Friday meeting. The plan crafted by the defunct board, whose duties now belong to the Board of Finance, would make noticeable dents in teacher paychecks across the state beginning in January 2022. Monthly contributions from public school teachers would go up for every tier and type of health insurance they’re offered as part of their compensation. The amounts vary, but all teachers signed up for health insurance through their workplace would pay 15% to 78% more each month. That comes out to monthly increases of $28 to $135.

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Under the proposal by the Employee Benefits Division Board, employees who complete an annual physical would get only $25 off their monthly premiums, compared to the $50 they currently receive. And employees who don’t get annual physicals will have to pay what amounts to a $50 monthly penalty in their premiums.

The Board of Finance and lawmakers could revise that original proposal, and many teachers are hoping they will.

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“While we don’t yet know what the board members will recommend, they are seeking an additional $35 million from the General Assembly, which falls well short of the needed $70 million. This will likely result in shifting the remaining shortfall onto the backs of educators,” Arkansas Education Association Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson said. She and other educators’ advocates say we should look to the state surplus for the rest.

After a school year where teachers were asked to work in-person despite the pandemic, a year during which an unknown number of educators across the state died of COVID-19, asking teachers to suck up such a big increase is asking a lot. Some teachers are taking offense.

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“We’re there for the students, that’s what’s keeping teachers in the classroom. But that’s about it,” said Josea Born, a middle school math teacher from Hope. Born is joining other educators in calling on state lawmakers to allocate some of the state’s $980 million they have socked away to offset the increases. This money in the bank represents Arkansas’s largest surplus ever. Governor Hutchinson has already said he  hopes to use that surplus to lower income tax rates, a move that will of course kick back the most money to the highest earners. Carving out less than 10% of our large and growing surplus for teachers is the right thing to do, Born said. “We have to show our teachers that we care about them.”

Hutchinson weighed in on the issue Thursday with a written statement, which vaguely suggests a reason for optimism for worried educators:

“The Board of Finance is reviewing how to address shortfalls in public school employee benefits. Regretfully, health insurance premiums are increasing in the public and private sector.  I trust the Board of Finance to make a fiscally sound decision on this matter to make sure teachers and public school employees do not have to bear the burden for increased costs.”

The health insurance costs teachers are facing come not only from rising prices for coverage, but also from the shrinking share of those costs being paid by the state and local school districts. In 2017, the state and districts covered 61% of educators’ monthly premiums. In the projection for 2022, the amount covered by the state and local districts is only 48%, leaving teachers to shoulder the bulk of the bills.

School districts contribute differing amounts toward their employees’ health insurance, although they all have to contribute at least $166 per employee per month.

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Taking money from the state surplus account to cover these increases so teachers don’t have to makes sense, said Donna Morey, executive director of the Arkansas Retired Teachers Association. “Benefits are a huge recruiting tool,” she said. “I taught and coached for 35 years. Having insurance is one of the things that kept me in education.”

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Sen. Joyce Elliott advocates for the state picking up more of the tab for teachers’ health insurance.

Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock), who was a high school teacher for 30 years, joined the Arkansas Education Association at the state Capitol Thursday for a press conference about the proposed hikes. She said she’s tired of trying to catch up with our surrounding states. Under the proposal currently on the table, the plan for 2022 requires Arkansas teachers to cover 52% of their premium costs, compared to the 28% teachers in Alabama pay, she said.

Tapping surplus funds to make up for the current $70 million shortfall would bring teachers’ contributions to 33%.

“How do we keep bragging about this wonderful economy we have, this surplus we have, and not do the right thing for teachers?” Elliott asked.

The Arkansas Legislative Council, a group of lawmakers who meet to gather information about issues they’ll be asked to vote on during legislative sessions, will discuss school employee health plans at their 9 a.m. meeting Friday.