An impassioned group of local educators came to Richmond County Supervisors last week pleading their case that their health insurance rates had become an impossible burden to shoulder.
But while their stories of woe were universal, they were met with very different reactions from two local leaders.
On Feb. 14, five public teachers, representing many more of their fellow workers, presented to the board a current fiscal crisis that has left many educators wondering if they could afford to remain locally employed.
Starting the public input presentation, Keith Peyton, a “proud, third-generation educator” in Richmond County, explained that a miscalculation by the county on last year’s state mandated changes in the Virginia Retirement System resulted in a $92.50 pay cut. Adding to that, Peyton said that the county’s new health care insurance plan for teachers has left him with premiums that have gone up by 71 percent, causing 15 percent of his already reduced salary further cut by insurance costs.
Prior to the 2010 – 2011 school year, premiums were 100 percent covered by budget line items.
Fellow educator Shawn Collins followed, explaining that many of his coworkers were anxious over being able to provide health care for their families.
“They simply cannot afford the cost of covering their children,” Collins said.
He added that as a parent and a teacher of children in this county, the best educators come from local families who care about students in Richmond County.
“I worry that as some of the experienced people in our school system begin to retire in the upcoming years we will have difficulty replacing them if working for Richmond County Public Schools loses its attractiveness to teachers concerned with providing for their families,” Collins said.
Angela Turner, a 2nd grade teacher, said that under the new insurance rates she faces paying $1,270.80 a month for her family’s health insurance.
“I try not to go to the doctor because of the high deductible, but that is hard because I’m pregnant” she said, adding that the bills are overwhelming at times, especially after a recent abnormal ultrasound which she paid nearly $1,000 for out of pocket for.
“They wanted me to come back to rule out any problems, but I had to cancel because I could not afford it,” Turner said. “I want to thank you for listening, and I know that you all do the best that you can, but this is becoming a big problem for families of teachers.”
Amy Erwin, a 21-year veteran teacher from the district, said that while she “loves” her job, it is becoming harder and harder to pay her bills and afford insurance without a raise or pay step.
Although she initially tried to make ends meet, an annual pay reduction of nearly $700 a month has left her hard pressed to carry insurance that covers her young son.
“I thought I could make it. It has been really bad,” Erwin said. “Many teachers are now going without the medications they need or avoiding needed medical appointments due to costs. I know for a fact that I am doing that right now.”
Erwin noted that despite her doctor’s recommendation, she is currently unable to afford a necessary follow up mammogram.
“I do feel that it is humiliating to have worked for as many years as I have and to have to call companies and explain why I cannot pay my bills,” she said. “I don’t understand…I feel the government as a whole has let teachers down and the educational field. It saddens me to have put my life into this job and I do feel a little disrespected on the pay and the health care. I understand that everybody is going through [pay cuts] but I hope that something can be done for the teachers here in Richmond County. We deserve to have affordable health care.”
Che Paulman, a speech pathologist at RCES, noted that local benefits are “just not up to par” with surrounding counties.
“With high deductibles and high group rates, along with our so called raise from last year… teachers and qualified staff can literally not afford to stay in this county,” Paulman said. “In order to reduce the turnover rate for our highly qualified teachers, something needs to be done.”
From the audience, Assistant Superintendent Sarah Schmidt noted that the schools are not included in the county’s insurance plan, resulting in a smaller pool with higher premiums and deductibles. She added that the inclusion would be beneficial and is something she and her staff are investigating.
“I am just astounded at the rates,” said Dist. 4 Supervisor Courtney Sisson in reaction to the teachers’ comments. “I don’t know what to say, I just think it is outrageous.”
Dist. 3 Supervisor John Haynes, who spent the majority of the teachers’ presentation looking down at a single document, only briefly glancing up once during the educators’ pleas, disagreed.
“The schools are facing the same problems obviously as the private sectors in regards to health insurance and compensation,” Haynes said, adding that according to his interpretation of a document provided by Schools Superintendent Dr. Greg Smith, local educators were well compensated in a regional comparison.
“The percentage of expenditures for instruction in Richmond County is 65.7 percent, so the overall compensation is the highest in the area,” Haynes said. “Now I realize some of that has to do because we have a high percentage of teachers with long tenure, and I have discussed this with [Dr.] Smith. But not withstanding the statements that have been made, the percentages for instruction is 65.7 percent, which once again is the highest in the area.”
It was a statement that was quickly proven false.
According to fiscal data from the four counties of the Northern Neck as well as Essex, Richmond County has the lowest educational budget, at $12.6 million, as compared to $15.5 million, $16.03 million, $17.2 million and $18.9 million respectively for Lancaster, Northumberland Essex and Westmoreland.
According to the most recent state data, despite having the smallest budget, the district has outperformed every other school system in the region in both standardized testing and overall annual objectives.
Additionally, the number Haynes was referring to includes only the amount of the county’s educational budget spent strictly on instruction, including textbooks, school supplies, classroom necessities and other fees associated with education, including teacher salaries but not benefits and other associated monies.
“What [Haynes] has said is actually a credit to the school system and nothing to do with salaries,” Smith said in a Feb. 18 interview. “It just means we have tight budget and are spending money wisely.”
He added that Haynes misconstrued the document, noting that it referred to a recent proposal from Gov. McDonnell which seeks to direct a minimum of 65 percent of all institutional funds allocated by the county toward education.
Smith said that the current amount of Richmond County’s education budget allocated to instruction it is proof of “good stewardship” of public funds on the part of the school board, staff and educators.
“He misinterpreted the point of the conversation,” Smith said. “There is a general standard that localities want to exceed 65 percent of the budget going directly into the classroom.”
Smith added that the school board and administrative staff have been vigilant in ensuring that the budget is austere while providing the best they can for local educators and students within the guidelines provided by the county’s allocated educational budget.
He added that the teachers’ concerns were a priority and that he and fellow staffers were investigating joining into the county’s health insurance program to lower costs and help “keep valued teachers” whose contributions cannot be tallied.
“We will do whatever we can to ensure that this problem is addressed and resolved,” Smith said.