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Mecklenburg schools health insurance costs soar / February 26, 2020

Mecklenburg County Public Schools has been hit with sharply higher health care costs for employees, leaving the School Board with difficult choices to make as they prepare the upcoming 2020-21 school budget.

The school division projects a 12.8 percent hike for employee health insurance in the new fiscal year that begins July 1. Lexi Forest with the Pierce Group, which administers the school division’s health coverage, explained the reasons for the increase as school trustees held their monthly meeting on Tuesday.

It is unclear how much of the increase will be passed on to plan participants. Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols said those calculations will take place as the school budget is developed for the coming fiscal year.

Forest said the nearly 13 percent increase is due, in part, to the significant jump in total claims paid by the division during the 2018-19 school year. Between the 2017-18 plan year and the 2018-19 year, the total number of claims paid for school employees covered by insurance increased by $700,000, a nearly 21 percent jump. Over the same period, the number of plan participants fell from 881 to 867 employees and their family members.

Forest said that inpatient claims jumped from $982,957 in 2017-18 to $1,671,588 in 2018-19, and claims paid for professional services rose from 981,791 to $1,081,933 over the same period. The only area where costs fell was for outpatient services. Those claims fell by $102,534 during that same period.

There was also a slight increase in the number of plan participants using emergency room services to treat ailments, including complaints of headaches, urinary tract infections, constipation, nose bleeds, and unspecified viruses. Forest described these incidents as avoidable emergency room visits and said the plan could have saved nearly $48,000 if these visits were redirected to other treatment facilities.

Forest said consumer education could help bring down some of these avoidable costs. She claimed that during past one-on-one meetings with plan participants, they were advised to use primary care facilities or telemedicine instead of emergency room visits for many of their health care needs.

Several teachers speaking on the promise of anonymity said they were never told about the 24/7 nurse line or the Live Health Online App that Forest described during their one-on-one meetings. They also said there was no discussion of the wellness programs that Forest said the Pierce Group offers. These programs would help patients manage chronic pain, stop smoking, provide free pre- and post-natal support and up to four sessions of employee assistance.

The teachers who were contacted each described a short session in which they were asked to confirm the plan they chose, and were told by how much, if at all, their insurance costs would increase.

In other business, trustees approved a set of punishments for board members who fail to follow rules of conduct previously adopted by the board.

The punishments range from a warning from the chair to removal from committee involvement for up to one year for offending board members. The sanctions will be meted out if agreed to by a majority of the board.

The issue that prompted the most debate was a provision that calls for a public censure of any board member who violates the rules for a second time. Several trustees said they feared the rule would prevent members from sharing their opinions. Ricky Allgood said he did not think it was appropriate for the board to take action against another elected member. Dora Garner suggested removing the public censure provision from the list of punishments.

Ultimately the provision passed on a vote of 7-1, with only Allgood voting in opposition. Trustee Glenn Edwards was absent and did not vote.

The Code of Conduct or Board Norms were approved in January after being developed by several members of the School Board. They call for:

» members to speak candidly and courteously during debates but then come together once the majority has spoken;

» the Chair to serve as the public spokesperson on board matters unless another member is so designated;

» members to avoid interference with the day-to-day operations of the school division;

» share information, comments and concerns regarding board matters with each other freely and openly;

» the superintendent to prepare the meeting agenda ahead of each school board meeting;

» board members to refrain from responding to public comments made during a board meeting and from using social media. Any complaints or concerns received from school division employees are to be directed to the Superintendent or the appropriate administrative official;

» board members to participate professional development at least once each year and attend all meetings and conferences;

» all media requests to be directed to either the board chair or the school superintendent;

» the board to monitor the strategic plan of the school division for compliance. This review should take place monthly, and also report at school board meetings the work of any of the board committees; and

» board members to follow the rules applicable to the public when visiting a school site. The protocol requires the public to first check in at the school office.

The athletic committee is recommending the school division refrain from referring to the annual football contest between Bluestone and Park View High Schools as the King of the County game. Instead, they suggest the game should have more of a “homecoming feel with tailgating spaces for the next two years.”

This suggestion was viewed as a first step toward blending the two schools ahead of the consolidation of campus that will take place beginning with the 2022-23 school year.

Justin Kirkland and Mike Barmoy, athletic directors at Bluestone and Park View, have already begun an inventory of equipment and determined that between the two schools, there were enough pads and helmets to outfit a consolidated football team and the helmet could be easily repainted with the new mascot and school colors. Kirkland and Barmoy were directed to speak with Virginia High School League officials to determine which VHSL division the school would be assigned once consolidation occurs.

The athletic committee also discussed player development for various sports teams through cooperative efforts with youth rec leagues and a secondary athletic program. They are also looking at adding boys volleyball and girls field hockey as additional sports offered through the school division.

Teachers at both Park View and Bluestone High School are working to develop a “Virginia is for Learners” pilot program at each school. The group presented their ideas to the School Board. The pilot programs will consist of year-long blended classes that would satisfy two credits for students participating in the class or classes.

The goal of these classes, as expressed by teachers at Bluestone High School, is to allow students to develop clarity about their future goals through meaningful advisory experiences and internships by integrating multiple content areas and knowledge with practical application. At Bluestone High School the interdisciplinary courses would be Biology II and Psychology and English and Photojournalism. The interdisciplinary courses at Park View High School would be English and Photojournalism.

Additional skills that will be incorporated into the programs include goal-setting, time management, personal and business etiquette skills, development of study-habits, and social and emotional lessons such as conflict resolution, self-care and anti-bullying.

Members of the instruction committee discussed, but reached no final conclusion, about the best method for introducing pre-AP (Advanced Placement) courses for students below grade 10 to prepare them to take and pass AP coursework and tests in grades 10-12. The committee agreed that once the high school consolidation takes place, AP and pre-AP courses will be part of the curriculum. Therefore, it is imperative the division begin now to prepare students for these classes.

The instruction committee also agreed to seek out Go Virginia grant money that can be used to purchase equipment for CTE instruction in welding and nursing. These classes would initially be made available to students at Bluestone Middle School. Once the middle schools are consolidated, the equipment would be moved to the consolidated middle school campus for use by all qualifying students.

Trustees authorized Nichols to execute the necessary documents to purchase additional property on Wooden Bridge Road in Baskerville at a price not to exceed $10,000 per acre. The property is needed to alter the access to the new consolidated secondary school campus.

Currently, buses attempting to enter the campus on Wooden Bridge Road are forced to make a near-hairpin turn onto the school driveway. This poses a hazard which can be eliminated if the driveway access point is moved and widened.

To do that, the county must purchase additional land near the existing driveway on Wooden Bridge Road.

In other business, Garner asked if the school division would consider expanding the free breakfast and lunch program beyond the elementary schools by offering it to students at the middle and high schools. Robin Moore, who heads food services for the division, said she is looking into this possibility.

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