Skyrocketing health care costs impacting 2019-20 school budget

Tax levy would rise by 3% under the budget proposal; spending plan includes academic initiatives

Faced with a crushing increase in health insurance costs for OESJ’s 157 staff members, the Board of Education has developed a budget that will increase the tax levy, add new programs and eliminate some staff positions.

The spending plan going to the voters on May 21 totals $19.95 million, a 3.9% increase over the current budget. The maximum tax levy increase or cap for OESJ is 4.53%; the budget as adopted by the board would raise the tax levy and tax rates by 3%.

Voting will be held from 12 noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 21. Voting is held at the OESJ Elementary School and OESJ Jr./Sr. High School. If you are unsure about where to vote, contact District Clerk Stephanie Bonk at 518-568-7820.

Interim Superintendent Joseph Natale said insurance costs from the self-funded NY44 Health Trust plan, which all OESJ employees have, are increasing by 25-27% in the 2019-20 school year.

“It’s a killer, more than a $500,000 increase, and we’re hoping to change plans,” Natale said of the NY44 plan. He said the district had factored a $250,000 insurance increase and never expected the $500,000 increase.

However, leaving NY44 is easier said than done. The district has to give a year’s notice and every OESJ union contract refers specifically to the plan. Any change would have to be negotiated with employees.

Despite that, the district is considering ways to get out of the fund earlier or to reduce next year’s costs even under NY44.

The NY44 Health Trust, which features the MVP Health Care plan at OESJ, is a trust cooperative through the Erie 1 BOCES. It includes 42 participating schools, districts, BOCES and community colleges throughout the state.

The district also loses $146,616 in state aid every year as part of the December 2012 merger between the Oppenheim-Ephratah Central School District and the St. Johnsville Central School District. That amount is a decrease every year for a decade.

OESJ will receive $11,600 less in total state aid next school year, Natale said. To cover the rising insurance costs, the Board of Education agreed to dip into reserve funds for $400,000 and to increase the use of fund balance by $15,000 to $200,000 total.

“That’s an additional $600,000 that we were able to use instead of raising taxes further,” said Natale.

Boosting teaching and learning in the budget
The budget’s initiatives are designed to boost teaching and learning, such as:

  • the addition of an elementary reading teacher,
  • an instructional coach through BOCES for both schools,
  • added curriculum work around the state’s Next Generation Learning Standards, 
  • in-service training for the development of an elementary writing program and
  • expansion of the Ready Math program to grades 3, 4 and 5 (all other grades have already been using the program).

Tightening the budget to compensate for the insurance increase meant some cuts. The budget’s staff reductions include a half-time business classroom position, full-time English position, reduction of 10 summer days each for the psychologist and for both guidance counselors and abolition of the in-house business and trades PTECH program for grade 9 students.

The district will save money from revised rates for BOCES services and these Jr./Sr. High School retirements: nurse and business teacher and vacancies in English and special education. The district will incur a savings by not replacing some of these positions.

Since the 2012 merger, taxes have been very stable in OSEJ. For the first five years after the merger, tax rates were not changed – even though the merger aid was decreasing each year. They increased by 1 percent this school year.