The cost of progress? School districts cut part-time hours to save cash -
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The cost of progress? School districts cut part-time hours to save cash

Classroom helper Rosie Wolfe, 58, of Papillion will have a lighter paycheck next year because of the new federal health care law.

Officials in the Papillion-La Vista school district plan to cut the hours of as many as 281 part-time employees, most of them paraprofessionals, to avoid the cost of a federal mandate to provide health insurance to employees working at least 30 hours a week.

“I’m just glad I’m not putting food on the table like I was a few years ago,” said Wolfe, who works at Rumsey Station Elementary School. “I have an empty nest. I really do feel for people whose money goes for food and braces.”

The goal of the federal law was to give more Americans access to affordable insurance coverage. Adding more people to the insurance pool, particularly younger, healthier individuals who now often go without it, should reduce premium and medical costs for everyone.

As financial fallout from the law starts to hit Nebraska and Iowa school districts, officials say they’re doing their best to minimize the impact to the classroom, but the cost of new fees and taxes will be passed on to taxpayers and employees.

To limit the impact on learning, some districts are hiring additional part-time paraprofessionals, or bumping up the hours of others, to make sure students get the same attention in the classroom.

The impacts follow the rollout of less controversial features of the law, such as no-cost preventive care and coverage for kids up to age 26 on their parents’ policy.

In addition to dealing with the coverage mandate, districts are wincing over new fees imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare.

The fees are to offset tax credits the federal government offers to individuals who don’t get insurance through their employer and instead purchase it through an exchange.

“It is true that there have been some pass-through portions of this law that have been very costly to districts in this state,” said John Spatz, executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards.

Several districts, among them Papillion-La Vista, Springfield Platteview, Westside and Douglas County West, are cutting hours for paraprofessionals.

Renee Hyde, Papillion-La Vista’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said putting 281 part-timers on insurance that’s offered to other employees would cost $2.5 million. School districts generally offer more generous insurance benefits — at a greater cost — than the private sector.

The district looked into offering a higher-deductible policy, but it would still cost about $1.5 million, she said.

If the district failed to act, the federal penalty would be $3.4 million, she said.

She said those costs are substantial relative to the $5 million the district spends on paraprofessionals.

District officials, as a result, chose to cut paraprofessionals’ hours from six and seven hours a day to 5.75 a day, she said. That will reduce paychecks by as much as $460 to $3,300 a year.

In the metro Omaha area, paras earn around $10 to $16 an hour.

Papillion-La Vista will hire additional paraprofessionals to make sure teachers have enough help in the classroom.

“So I’ll be in the hiring business when it comes to paras,” Hyde said.

Wolfe, in her 18th year at Rumsey Station, said she will lose an hour and 15 minutes a day — that’s nearly 220 hours during the school year.

“I’m losing a fair amount of money, as quite a few of us are,” she said.

During contract negotiations, the district’s paraprofessionals have considered asking for health insurance, but they always opted for higher wages, she said.

Most of the paras, including Wolfe, have health insurance through spouses, she said.

“But I’ve always been concerned because I’m obviously not old enough for Medicare yet, so if I were to divorce or my spouse were to die, I’d probably have to find a job that offered insurance,” she said.

Brett Richards, superintendent in the Springfield Platteview district, said he will cap paraprofessional hours at 29 next year, down from 37.5.

The small district couldn’t afford the $200,000 to give them health insurance, he said.

“It is frustrating that we will lose good, trained personnel hours because of a law that doesn’t have anything to do with the district budget,” he said.

Employees facing reduced hours were offered a 4 percent wage increase to entice them to stay with the district, he said. The district also is letting paras work a four-day-a-week schedule so they have an opportunity to get another part-time job, he said.

Douglas County West Superintendent Dan Schnoes said his district will be reducing the hours of about 12 staff members by around 45 minutes per day.

He plans to increase the hours of other part-time employees to make up for some of the time lost.

The Omaha Public Schools have no plans to cut hours, according to Gerry Huber, executive director of general administration.

Employees who work 30 hours or more weekly already have an opportunity for health insurance, he said.

The Bellevue Public Schools said the same is true for them.

The Westside school board voted Monday to allow administrators to restructure the district’s part-time staff to comply with the act.

That option will give the district some flexibility going forward, allowing it to dial back the hours of many employees to the 30-hour threshold and revisit those positions that may need to go over the limit, said Eric Weber, assistant superintendent for human resources.

The law would affect three groups of part-time employees — building services, nutrition services and education assistants.

The district can work to bring part-time building services employees below the 30-hour threshold, he said. Some nutrition services employees will need to go over, but the district still is figuring out how many.

Of the district’s 265 education assistants, 122 work more than 30 hours a week. However, only a small number — 20 to 30 — rely on the district for insurance.

Although the Council Bluffs Community Schools already offer health insurance to paraprofessionals working at least 35 hours — nearly all of them — the district will have to pay $87,000 in Obamacare-related fees next year, said Janet Reiners, executive director of human resources.

Millard Public Schools will have to pay $400,000, according to district officials.

“The biggest problem is everyone said that Obamacare is only going to help costs, contain costs,” Millard school board member Mike Kennedy said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s actually going to cost the taxpayers multiple times.”

Kennedy said it will be difficult for school boards to approve employee pay raises large enough to keep up with rising health care costs.

The vast majority of Nebraska school districts, which are insured through the Educators Health Alliance, will see higher rates next year, attributable in part to Obamacare, an official said.

Rates are up 6.4 percent for 2013-14, just over half of which reflects new fees and taxes in the law, said Greg Long, field representative for the alliance.

Most of the impact reflects a new insurers tax taking effect, but also the fees and cost of new services, he said.

“It did raise our costs, but if you do look at the preventative portion of the health care, that’s something that’s a positive,” he said. “You can’t put a price tag on saving someone’s life.”

World-Herald staff writer Julie Anderson contributed to this report.

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