With the end of employee contract negotiations in the Amphitheater School District looming, district officials are now wondering whether what little money coming from the state will go toward pay raises or skyrocketing healthcare premiums.

The district is facing rising health insurance costs that will increase premiums as much as 25 percent next year, costing some employees more than $2,000 more a year, depending on what kind of coverage they have.

Arizona School Health Insurance Programs, the district's vendor for health insurance, will be increasing its rates substantially next year, possibly putting more of a financial burden on the already financially-strained district, said Todd Jaeger, Amphi's legal counsel.

Currently, the district contributes $2,400 a year per full-time employee or early retiree who is on ASHIP. That amount covers nearly all of the cost of health insurance for just the employee. The employee must make up the difference if they wish to include other family members.

The district also gives full-time employees $100 in "cafeteria money," which they can use to pay for things like dental or vision insurance, or to further offset the cost of health insurance.

If the district were to raise the amount it contributes to cover individual employees, which would be about $600 more a year per employee on the plan, that would mean the district would be shelling out an additional $1.3 million

"It would be nearly impossible for us to absorb those costs," Jaeger said.

Jaeger said the added costs come from an increase in the usage of services ASHIP covers. If the district can't cover the additional costs, employees will have to carry the burden.

For just the employee, the rates will go up to $3,072 a year from $2,460. For employees who are covering their families, the rate will go up to $8,028 a year, with the district still contributing $2,400. This is just for ASHIP's HMO-type plan where employees must see certain doctors as opposed to being able to choose, Jaeger said. Under the PPO plan, where members choose their doctors, employees will pay more, he added.

Also of concern to early retirees covered by the plan is the fact that ASHIP has decided to put them into a different rate scale since they are more likely to utilize more healthcare programs than younger employees.

Early retirees will see their rates more than double next year, from $2,400 a year to nearly $6,000 for single employees, and $6,400 to more than $15,000 for employees and their families.

When Jaeger presented next year's rates to the Amphi Governing Board at its April 23 meeting, Vice President Mary Schuh said she thought the rates were "just totally getting out of line."

"I looked into the audience and I saw the eyes of some of the teachers just look toward the ceiling," she said. "I thought, 'Oh my God, you'll have to sell your first-born child.'"

Sally Secrist, a second-grade teacher at Harelson Elementary School, said she covers herself and her family under ASHIP and pays about $196 a paycheck and that an increase in health insurance costs, if the district can't cover them, will definitely affect her life.

However, she also said she understands that the district is in a tight spot waiting to see what kind of money is coming from the state, which is dealing with its own budgetary woes.

"It's not the district's fault," she said. "I've been telling all of the other teachers at my school not to expect anything. There's just no money coming from the state."

Secrist said there will be some relief coming from the state level due to Proposition 301, the voter-approved initiative that raised Arizona's sales tax by .06 percent for education. However, even those funds fall short of original estimates.

Plus, Secrist said the amount of whatever raise is given to teachers through Prop. 301 probably won't be enough to cover the rise in costs.

"The taxpayers think they gave teachers an increase," she said. "We're just going to be in the hole again."

Mark Cavendish, the head custodian at Amphi High School who is also involved in negotiations, said Prop. 301 money won't benefit non-teaching employees and that they will have to rely on the mandatory 2 percent raise required by state law, which totals about $320,000.

Board President Ken Smith said, ideally, the district would like to be able to cover at least some of the increase, but that just isn't possible.

Instead, he said it will be up to the employees to decide what they want: more money for their salaries or more money for health insurance.

"Which place it goes doesn't make that much of a difference to me, as long as it's what the employees decided was best," Smith said.

He added the most productive thing everyone can do is cooperate to try and influence state legislators not to cut funding from education to alleviate the Legislature's $1 billion deficit.

Secrist said she thinks it will take something much more drastic for things to change.

"There's going to have to be a huge crisis before we see a huge change," she said.

Until then, things will only get worse for both employees and the students in the schools.

"Pretty soon, kids might be sitting in front of someone who's not even a teacher," she said. "Either that or they'll be sitting in a class with 35 other kids when there was only supposed to be 25.

"I'm close to retirement, so I'm not going to change," she continued. "But young teachers today aren't looking at teaching as being a life-long career anymore. They're looking at it as something they might do for a few years and move on."

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