Monday, August 31, 2009

Watching Your Health Care

Welcome back to school all of you wonderful teachers, specialists, para-professionals, food service workers, secretaries, custodians, and of course students.

Health care continues as an important issue for educators in Delaware. The struggle to forge a national health plan is ongoing, as are the events around the struggle. Tonight at 6:30 PM, Health Care for America Now (HCAN)is showing the film, "Unnatural Causes" at the DSEA office in Newark (Rt 4 and Harmony Rd). Wednesday evening at 7:00PM Organizing For America (OFA) is holding a rally for health care on the Legislative Mall in Dover.

At the state level, many ideas continue to circulate that pose challenges to the integrity of our health plan. Previously, this blog has discussed the Government Performance Review report. At the risk of being redundant, you should be aware that the report recommends achieving savings of more than $13 million out of the health plan.

We are in favor of the health plan being managed well to deliver a good benefit in a cost effective manner. In that scenario, public employees and taxpayers both win.

However, we are not in favor of suggestions such as those in the Performance Review that would have employees paying more premium (after last year's 50% increase) with no other justification than the fact that employee health care is expensive.

Premiums in the state employee health plan should be based on an extensive and accurate claims history that allows an actuarial projection of future costs. Philosophy, national trends, or robbing Peter to pay Paul, should not enter into the discussion.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

News Sad and Good

The sad news is that US Senator Edward Kennedy lost his fight with brain cancer and passed away late Tuesday night. So much will be said about the legacy of this political giant by mainstream media in the next few days, that this blog does not need to be your source. However, I will make two relevant comments. First, Kennedy's presence will be missed in three debates of interest to school employees and their union; health care, the Employee Free Choice Act, and reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Secondly, I hope that in the days ahead one thing is made clear about Kennedy; he respected everyone, including his adversaries. That's uncommon today in politics, the idea of being a gentleman, or lady, when in conflict.

In other news last night of a much different nature, Mark Holodick has been named superintendent of Brandywine School District. Mark has been serving Brandywine as principal of Concord High School. Speaking of people who always act like a gentleman, that would be Mark Holodick. As a union representative I sometimes encountered Mark Holodick in situations of opposition (grievances, negotiations), he was, and I'm sure will remain a fair and thoughtful administrator.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Something needs to be done about the State Employee Benefits Committee (SEBC). The SEBC controls the health benefits of teachers, school employees, and state workers. The SEBC is able to unilaterally set employee premiums, which is exactly what they did this year increasing employee monthly premiums 50%.

The SEBC is composed of seven members: The Director of the Office of Management and Budget, State Treasurer, Director of Health and Human Services, Insurance Commissioner, Controller General, Secretary of Finance, and (added this year) the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

None of the above mentioned members are direct representatives of the major stakeholders, the public employees.

The Delaware State Education Association believes that the SEBC must be expanded to include representatives of the insured. In coalition with other public employee groups we will propose legislation in the next session to increase the size of the SEBC by four and include representatives from DSEA, AFSCME, and the State Troopers, as well as a retired "at large".

Friday, August 21, 2009

School Time!

It's almost school time! For most districts, school starts next week.

This school year has teachers and school employees returning to work with the imposition of 5 unpaid furlough days. (Pay will be reduced over 26 pays for the 5 days.) Many employees without a locally negotiated health stipend will see their health care costs go up 50%. Also, Short Term Disability has been changed to the point of being almost worthless. An ill employee must somehow survive 60 days without the disability pay. After 60 days, the STD pay of 75% of salary will begin. For school employees who accumulate sick days at 10 per year and who must fullfill the elimination period within the 10 month contract year; the STD provides little income protection for serious illness.

Additionally, there are decision makers with ideas for changing education that may not bode well for school employees. Unfortunately, some people believe that teacher rights and teacher input are obstacles to reform. In other words, what low performing schools really need are well intentioned dictators with well behaved employees. Moreover, pay for performance is a Juggernaut.

In spite of all of the above mentioned, teachers and support staff are enthusiastic about starting school. I hear it everywhere I go in the state; our people miss the kids, miss teaching, and are ready to get back to work. It speaks volumes to the commitment and undaunted spirit of educators in Delaware that morale remains high in the face of disrespect.

Dubious Zone

The Race to the Top/Innovation/Reform/Let's Grab all the ARRA Money We Can folks are on the move. The idea now being touted in Dover is creating something called a "Local Turnaround Zone" for schools in restructuring. A consulting firm called Mass Insight is circulating a document that promotes the zone idea. These zones could be within or across district lines. The zones, according to one Mass Insight document, will allegedly "...change traditional operating conditions that inhibit reform. The zones establish outside-the-system authorities inside the system, within a framework of strong support and guidance from the district and a lead turnaround partner."

Please, allow me to be Mr. Paranoid and paint an un-pretty picture: First, the "traditional operating conditions that inhibit reform" in some people's minds could mean collective bargaining agreements and the unions who enforce them.

Second, "outside-the-system authorities inside the system" sounds a lot like a private company that comes in runs the schools in the "zone". Sort of like an education Haliburton.

Third, "a lead turnaround partner" is a confusing term, at least to me the uninitiated. Could this partner be a foundation like Brode or some corporate entity with specific interests?

If I allow my cynical side to characterize a turnaround zone, I define it as a zone where teacher rights give way to some authority figure who will choose good teachers from bad, choose curriculum, determine work rules, hours of the school day, and days of the school year. The zone will not be a democracy. In short, the zone will be run by a CEO, after all that model has worked so well for our economy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

OPEB and National Health Care

Lately, this blog has commented a lot on the national health care debate. In part, that is because the parent organization of DSEA, the National Education Association is one of the major players promoting true reform. Also, the blog has made several arguments about how the current system undermines our economic bargaining because money that should be used for salaries is siphoned off for health care. Of course, for the DSEA members who do not have contracts covering their insurance contributions, no argument needs to be made as a 50% increase in monthly premiums becomes effective this summer.

With all that said, I discovered another reason why school employees and other state employees should want a national health program, OPEB.

Other Post Employment Benefits, known by the acronym OPEB is becoming a major state budget issue. In simplest terms, OPEB is health care for our retirees. Not only do some in state government not like paying for this benefit, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult to budget for retiree health care.

The Government Accounting Standards Board (starting in FY 2008) makes states reflect the full cost of retiree health care benefits earned by current employees on their financial statements. In other words a way of forcing the issue of health liability for the future.

Although the federal government does not mandate funding this liability, or even a funding strategy, states feel the need to address the obligation and begin putting money aside into OPEB trusts. Moreover, states have started to think about ways to reduce this liability. This usually means making a two tiered pension plan where new hires do not have post retirement health care. It also means schemes for placing current retirees in insurance pools separate from active employees. None of these scenarios are good for state employees.

A national health program eliminates the OPEB problem.

There are only 50 governors in the country. That makes them a pretty exclusive club and a powerful lobbying body. I hope our governor is talking to Senator Carper and Congressman Castle about supporting national health care.

Meanwhile, Senator Kaufman continues to roll along supporting issues for the common person, such as national health care, without arm-twisting.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Labor Day Event Coming Soon

The Delaware State Education Association has enjoyed a good working relationship with the rest of the Labor community for several years. A part of this goodwill is expressed every year by our participation in the annual Labor Day Parade. Each year the DSEA participation has grown.

This Labor Day, Monday, September 7th we want to make it the biggest DSEA appearance ever. After all, it has been a tough year and all the way through it we have enjoyed the support of our Labor partners. In a show of solidarity we would like DSEA members to walk with the rest of Delaware Labor in the parade.

Your colleagues who have participated in the past will tell you it is a great event. Hundreds of union members walk in the parade from many diverse occupations. Most of the Delaware politicians will also march. DSEA gives away apples and promotion items all along the route.

Please mark the event in your calendars now: Monday, September 7th at 10:00AM please gather at 15th and King streets in downtown Wilmington. Parking is available close to the gathering point. The nearest landmark is St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Also, for members or retirees who may not be up to the walk, there is seating available on the staging band wagon.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Vacation Time

My apologies to all the followers of this blog. Your humble writer is on vacation and trying to keep himself from drifting back into work.

However, I just had to thank the folks who turned out last night in Newark for the training on health care reform, especially the DSEA members.

It was a good turnout in spite of the heat of yesterday, and everyone, including me, trying to use vacation time before the Autumn onslaught.

The expertise supplied by Families USA staff was informative and timely. The event was sponsored by the Service Employees International Union's "Change that Works" campaign and hosted by the Unitarian Fellowship in Newark.

In spite of all the press about violent disruptions of health care town halls, this one went off without a hitch. It was "Delaware Nice", and I'm not going to complain about that.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Do Something Radical

I've just been reading through some of the materials from Race to the Top and/or Innovation Action Team.

My fear is that there are people involved in this so called reform who believe at the root of challenges facing education are teachers who lack intelligence, skill, and motivation and that they are protected in their mediocrity by their too powerful union.

These are the same people who will attempt to steer the conversation toward changing teacher termination law, eradicating tenure (mainly because they mis-interpret it to mean job security), loosening transfer language, rearranging the teaching day, eliminating seniority rights, linking evaluations directly to student performance, linking pay directly to student performance...

On the other hand consider that teachers have long desired to reform their own curriculum, professional development, school calendar, school day, service delivery to students with special needs, student performance monitoring, code of student discipline etc. They have attempted to do this through the collective bargaining process. In most cases, when the people who actually teach try to bargain these items, they are told by an attorney (Why do districts pay outside attorneys to negotiate?)that such issues are not subjects of mandatory bargaining and so will not be considered by the district.

If the reformers want to do a something really radical to shake up American education, they should broaden and strengthen collective bargaining rights. Give the people who actually teach and care for the kids more voice in the process, not less. Also, they could try weakening the power of superintendents and putting more power at the building level, but not just in the hands of the principal. Buildings could be run by democratically elected committees that include the principal, but not as a veto vote. Let's really, really, shake things up by asking kids what's working and not working about their school. Let's ask kids if they are happy going to school, and if they have anything even approaching a curiosity or love of learning.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Real Discussion on Health Care

The US Congress is currently on recess. This is traditionally a time when federal lawmakers return home to hear from constituents and be seen in all the right places. A common vehicle for hearing from constituents is the town hall meeting. These are usually moderately attended affairs where federal representatives can have policy conversations with common citizens; opportunities for more than soundbites.

However, this recess has been different in that town hall meetings across the nation have been hijacked by groups of loud protesters. This has particularly been true of meetings with the agenda to discuss health care reform. The activity is far from spontaneous, a number of health industry lobbying firms have sponsored advocacy groups to encourage and coordinate the disruptions. And "disruptions" is the accurate word. In most of these encounters the Congress Person and anyone else who wanted to speak has been shouted down. This isn't discourse, it is bully boy tactics.

By contrast, an opportunity for real learning and discussion around health care reform will be offered next week in Newark, Delaware.

On Monday, August 10th at 6:30PM in the Unitarian Fellowship, 420 Willa Road, Newark, DE 19711 a health care training will be offered by Kathleen Stoll, Deputy Director of Families USA.

Families USA has been a nationally recognized source of expertise and advocacy around health care for decades.

Why should a blog primarily devoted to the politics around education and education employees concern itself about health care? Why should the DSEA parent organization, the National Education Association be a key member of Health Care for America Now?

Here in Delaware, as in other parts of the country, health benefits for education employees are under attack. This year, employees had a 50% premium hike imposed on them. Even if your contract makes the school district pick up the premium, that is money that could be used for salaries. It is also subject to tough negotiations the next time your contract opens up. Moreover, if you follow this blog, you know that the state is likely to go after more employee health costs in the next budget.

In the United States we are spending 17% of Gross Domestic Product on health care.
Last year health care spending rose 6.9%, twice the inflation rate. It is predicted that health care spending will be 20% of GDP by 2017. No economy can withstand this type of onslaught for long.

In state budgets health care spending and education are always the two big ticket items. The more health care spending rises, the more pressure is put on the rest of the budget, particularly the next biggest cost, education.

Finally, educators deal with the health care crisis everyday. For example, one in three US children lack dental insurance. How many are coming to school everyday with discomfort? How much of your mission to teach is made more difficult by untreated medical problems?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Southern Race Goes to Booth

There is a clear winner in the Delaware 19th Senate District, and it is Joe Booth. Booth captured 4,335 votes to Mervine's 2,085, with Opaliski at 408 and Jones bringing up the rear at 56 votes.

Booth was in the race early and ran a flawless campaign. He had several positive factors going for him, retired policeman, former school board member, former mayor, and current state representative.

The Democrat, Mervine was plagued with Party dissension that stemmed from the candidate selection process. The Party Committee met and chose Eddie Parker after several votes. Mr. Parker was out of the race 48 hours later. Some believe he was pressured out of the running. The Party met again and chose Polly Adams Mervine, daughter of the late Thurmond Adams.

Also in the category of "interesting things about this race" the Libertarian and the Independent were not significant factors. About one if five District 19 voters are Independent. Moreover, Opaliski had name recognition in the community as a candidate. Both Opaliski and Jones had been very visible in the campaign. Conventional thinking would lead one to believe that Opaliski and Jones would draw votes from Booth's conservative voting block. It did not happen, proving once again that Sussex County has their own way.

Last night's result means, heaven help us, another special election to fill Joe Booth's vacant state representative seat in Georgetown.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Election Day Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Monday, August 3rd will be the special election for Senate District 19. The special election is the result of the death of Delaware icon, Senator Thurman Adams. The DSEA has recommended Polly Adams Mervine for election to this seat. She is the daughter of the late Senator Adams and a former Second Grade teacher from North Laurel Elementary.

If you're DSEA in Sussex County come out and help. If you're DSEA in Kent or New Castle wish your Southern colleagues good fortune.