The Switzerland County School Board moved to calm the rising tide of discontent on Monday night among residents who are upset about the insurance rate that is offered to school board members.
In November of last year, the matter of how much school board members are eligible to pay for medical, dental, and life insurance came to the forefront when the board voted by a 4-3 vote to continue the policy of members being offered insurance for $1 per year for each benefit. At that time, board members Jill Cord, Wayne Daugherty, Nancy Peters, and Bill Roberts voted to continue the practice; while members Joe Bennett, Katie Collier, and Josh Deck voted to against it, instead saying that board members should be eligible for school insurance, but should pay what the average teacher pays.
Currently, the perk of insurance at the $1 per year rate is extended to administrators and school board members.
When it was circulated through the community that the benefit was costing the school corporation nearly $20,000 per year per member taking all three insurance options – a segment of the community and social media began to demand that the benefit be eliminated. At the board’s reorganization meeting held on January 11th, the matter arose again, but again changing the plan was voted down by the same 4-3 margin – and more discontent began to grow.
That led to Monday night’s February meeting of the school board; held in the midst of an online petition circulating calling for action to change the policy and some sort of acknowledgment from the four board members taking all three benefits: Cord, Daugherty, Peters, and Roberts.
Deck takes the dental and life coverage, but not the medical; and Bennett takes the life coverage. Collier does not take any of the benefits offered.
Peters, elected as President of the board at the January reorganization meeting, opened Monday night’s meeting with approximately 100 members of the community in attendance.
It didn’t take long for the matter to come up.
Peters, telling the community that she wanted to move forward on the issue, made a motion to discontinue the policy of the school board being eligible for insurance benefits beginning in January of 2017.
“I asked that to be on the agenda because I would like to move forward with this corporation,” Peters said. “And I would like to make a motion that we move forward by not offering medical, visual, or dental insurance beginning January, 2017.”
The motion was seconded by Daugherty.
At that point the board began to discuss the motion, and there was disagreement among board members.
“Madam President, over the past year, the school board has never discussed the school board’s benefits issue, therefore I would very much appreciate the opportunity to share some information on the matter at this time,” Cord asked Peters. “I request your permission to do this via a prepared statement which I would read to the board and to the audience.”
“At this point in time, I would like to see us pass the motion; and down the road, when we need to really discuss what we’re going to do for the next year, because the next school board will have to have input; I’d like to hold it until then, if that’s okay,” Peters responded.
“I’d rather make the statement tonight,” Cord responded.
“Is it a statement, or are you reading something?” Peters asked.
“I’m reading a prepared statement,” Cord said.
Peters then called on Bennett.
“At the last meeting, when it was voted in for this year, we said that we weren’t going to discuss it the rest of the year,” Bennett said.
“Well, we’re not discussing what has been passed twice for 2016,” Peters responded. “So, I want to move on, and come Fall, when it comes time to discuss again, I’d like do it at that point in time.”
She then asked school board attorney Matt Hocker to weigh in, asking if she could ‘stick to her guns’, or if she should allow Cord to read her statement.
“If you believe that it has bearing on the motion?” Hocker asked Cord.
“Yes, sir,” she responded.
“Is it pertaining to moving forward, or is it bringing up old information?” Peters asked.
“It’s supplying information to the public,” Cord said.
“I’d rather not hear it,” Peters said. “I’m sorry.”
At that point Peters attempted to put her motion to a vote, but Cord stopped her and asked Hocker for his opinion.
“Am I not allowed to discuss this motion?” she asked.
“The board president has a lot of leeway in conducting the board discussion,” Hocker said. “I think the determination Nancy might have made, and that’s a clarifying question, if whether or not it has to do with this motion, which has to do with benefits of 2017. And you said it was just general information; so I don’t know that it was directly on point. The board president has some power to run the board, so….”
“That’s what I’d like to do,” Peters said.
“If it’s information you’d like to get to the public, I’m sure you can do that,” Hocker continued, “But the president has the ability to move forward with the agenda.”
At that point, Peters called for a vote on the motion; and it passed unanimously.
Following the motion, the floor was opened for public comments, and members of the community still wanted some answers.
Paul McGraw, a former teacher for many years who is now retired and lives near Florence, was the first to speak.
“How is money to be spent?” McGraw asked during his comments. “I this case, it’s money that might be spent on the children of Switzerland County. The question is whether the school system should spend a great deal of money for school board members. How much money are we talking about? We hear various numbers, but in any case it sounds like a huge amount of money to me. What could be done with the money, if it weren’t spent on the school board? Could it be spent on the educational programs for the children of Switzerland County?”
Cary Louderback then spoke. “What I want to say is just very, very simple,” he said. “I’d like the school board, and in particular the four members, and we know who we’re referring to when we say ‘the four’, to do some serious soul searching. Think about your commitment. Why did you want to be a school board member? What is your commitment to the public? You’ve all gone on record as saying that you don’t have to explain your position. I can’t imagine being in a public position, a publicly-elected position. Having the responsibility and the authority to expend public funds, and tell the people that voted for me, ‘I don’t have to explain my decision’.”
“I’m going to start by saying thank you for considering a different option, it’s appreciated and the gesture,” Michelle Oatman said. “However, you still were afforded the opportunity months ago to save this corporation almost $67,000. You chose not to do that at that time; and now you’re asking the corporation in this county to suck up you’re screw up; and suck up another $67,000 to pay for your insurance for the next year. That’s still wrong.”
“I came here originally tonight to ask the four of you to resign, and I’m stopping just short of doing that,” Chris Oatman said. “Now that’s you’re at least going to consider it; but you’re still costing this corporation $6,700 per month, and $80,000 for the rest of this year. You guys have made unprofessional comments about the public; failed to address questions; keep cost of the issue off of the agenda; and you’ve failed in your duties to put yourself last and put our children first. That’s what your job is. That’s what you volunteered to do.”
At the end of the meeting, each school board member is given the opportunity to make comments. It was then that Cord again asked to read her statement.
At that point Peters told her that she had three minutes to read her statement, but warned her that she would cut her off after three minutes.
“….Health insurance benefits were first offered to Switzerland County School Board members in 1982; and this practice has continued until present day,” Cord read from her prepared statement. “34 years ago, in 1982, none of the seven board members from the present board were serving. Dr. Michael Adamson, Director of Board Services for the Indiana School Boards Association, has been contacted several times by board members over this past year in order to receive his advice regarding the school board member benefit insurance issue. Dr. Adamson conferred with current school board members via an in-service workshop which he presented in Switzerland County, and on August 13th, 2015, in a letter regarding the matter.
“In this letter, Dr. Adamson stated, and I quote,” Cord continued, “… ‘The Indiana General Assembly long ago recognized the contribution made by private citizens, who work diligently in non-partisan positions in local public education institutions’. He reported State Statute IC 5-10-8-1 and -2 provides for such benefits so as not to undermine the importance of having qualified individuals serve their communities as school board members….”
She then continued to quote from Adamson’s letter saying that the offer of insurance as a benefit may not be ‘attractive’ to all members of a school board, because they may already have adequate insurance, but that board members who do choose to take advantage of the benefit should not be subjected to criticism by doing so.
The matter of what the true bearing of Monday’s motion and vote actually has was up for debate my members of the community following the meeting on Monday.
Could the board adopt a policy that doesn’t pertain to the current board; but rather impacts a new board, should there be one, beginning in January of next year?
The seats of four members of the current seven-member board – Collier in Pleasant Township, Daugherty in the Town of Vevay, Deck in York Township, and Roberts in Cotton Township – will all be up for election in the General Election in November of this year. Should one or more of those seats change, should Monday night’s decision bind new members to a policy that they didn’t adopt?