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School changing health plans

Switch to BC/BS saves money, may bring more employees in

by Tom Coombe

The Ely School District is changing health insurance providers - resulting in lower premiums overall and potentially more employees opting for the district’s insurance plan.

At a brief meeting on Monday, school board member accepted the bid from Blue Cross/Blue Shield to provide health insurance beginning next year, pending approval of the district’s bargaining units.

The move capped months of discussion by a district insurance team, which included representatives of both the teachers and AFSCME labor groups.

The group examined bids and insurance plans and eventually whittled the decision down to Blue Cross/Blue Shield and two other finalists.

“We went though the bidding process and had several carriers respond to our RFPs, which was good,” said superintendent Anne Oelke.

The Blue Cross/Blue Shield proposal ultimately emerged from the pack, and was the subject of an all-staff meeting in early-November.

Oelke said “I feel confident moving forward” with Blue Cross/Blue Shield and noted the company offered “a very like plan to what we are already using.”

The district pays up to $20,000 per teacher for family coverage under terms of present bargaining units, and the insurance “cap” is at $10,000 for teachers choosing single coverage.

The amount that teachers contribute depends on the selection of coverage, which includes low, medium and high deductible options ranging from $400 to $4,000 annually.

The school district also contributes up to $13,500 annually for family coverage for AFSCME employees who qualify for insurance.

Oelke said that the change to Blue Cross/Blue Shield will make it more likely that more employees take the health insurance plan.

That’s likely to diminish any overall savings the district might see from the switch.

“There would be a cost savings overall, however we are anticipating that if we do go with Blue Cross/Blue Shield we do anticipate a few more employees taking our insurance, so we might be a wash or maybe a little bit over... Plus in negotiations there are some pieces tied with insurance.”

For more than a decade, district premium payments for faculty were capped at $12,000, but the insurance cap jumped to $20,000 in 2017.

Contract negotiations are ongoing with the teachers’ bargaining unit, although board members could vote on a proposed settlement with AFSCME at a special meeting set for Nov. 27.

The insurance discussion was part of a board session that lasted roughly 45 minutes.

Tim Leeson, the district’s facilities director, reported that he and high school principal Jeff Carey conducted a walk through with architects and contractors, essentially closing out the 21st Century Learning Project that resulted in more than $20 million of renovations and new construction on campus.

Leeson said some warranty items and other minor adjustments are all that’s remaining.

The district is moving forward with another phase of the project, still yet to be named.

It involves window replacement, new doors and classroom improvements and is the result of additional funding secured this year with the help of state legislators.

In other business, the board:

• Received an enrollment update showing that the district currently has 534 students in grades K-12. That’s five more than were on hand for the start of the 2023-24 school year.

• Approved professional growth payments totalling $23,400, divided among several teachers. A contract agreement with the teachers allows faculty members to be reimbursed to offset some of the costs associated with additional college credits in their field.

• Approved salary lane change requests to teachers Megan Wognum, Madeline Olson, Cory Lassi and Autumn Boedeker.

• Authorized service agreements with Widseth, Smith, Nolting and Associates for architectural services related to the upcoming facilities project.

• Granted Max Gantt a one-week parental leave extension.

• Approved a .20 FTE overload assignment for high school social studies teacher Frank Ivancich.

• Passed a resolution supporting grant funding requests to the Minnesota State High School League Foundation for extra-curricular activity fee payments and activity support.

• Accepted the resignation of paraprofessional Cathy Mindel.

• Approved a medical leave request form art teacher Kelly Chick, from Dec. 5-Jan. 1.

• Hired Elyssa Erickson and Tim Hogan to serve as junior class advisor/junior and senior banquet advisor, with a split stipend.

• Moved the December study session up one week to Dec. 18.

• Accepted donations from the Ely Education Foundation for cafeteria booths ($8,500), media center ($6,500), knowledge bowl ($5,000) and the elementary STEAM program ($4,000), and a $50 donation from Lynn and Donna Rogers to the school’s art department in memory of Sharon Anderson.

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