Editor’s note: This commentary is by David F. Kelley, an attorney and a co-founder of Project Harmony (now PH International) who is a member of the Hazen Union School Board.
I remember an old anti-war song from the ’60s that asked “where have all the flowers gone?” The answer was that they had “gone to graveyards, every one” and it is starting to feel like school boards are headed in the same direction.
I like Montpelier. My grandfather was the state treasurer. My dad was deputy commissioner of agriculture and I was the attorney for the Vermont Ski Areas Association for 25 years. But lately trips to Montpelier have felt like visiting Alice’s Wonderland. One reason is because I serve on a school board and the Vermont School Boards Association (VSBA) in Montpelier, which is supposed to represent local school boards, has just spent the last two years sending out a small army of consultants on a mission to dismantle local school boards. VSBA isn’t even paid by local school boards anymore. The check is coming from the superintendents’ offices, who they have represented quite effectively.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when VSBA began promoting a shift of responsibility for health insurance plans from local school boards to the state. But I must admit I was a little amazed when the president of VSBA recently wrote: “Quite frankly, we volunteer school board members are in over our heads negotiating this health care transition.” You would think we were talking about quantum physics and anti-matter, not health insurance plans. Thank God we have those folks who have been designing health care plans in Montpelier to save us. I forget how many millions they wasted a few years ago.
The need for redesigning teacher health insurance plans is obvious. With Obamacare’s “Cadillac tax” kicking in, the proposal to increase deductibles and create health savings accounts (HSAs) makes eminent sense. But there is no reason it can’t be handled by local school boards. Insurance carriers (presumably Blue Cross) can send out a recommended template or templates for deductibles, co-pays and health savings accounts to supervisory union business managers. It isn’t quantum physics.
There are several problems with the governor’s proposal:
First, what assurance is there that the state, once it has control of all of this money and the contracts that go with it, will continue to use savings to fully fund the HSAs? What kind of a statewide collision is looming when the governor finds a need to put that money somewhere else?
If anyone believes responsibility for spending millions of our property tax dollars is best left to Montpelier, as opposed to our neighbors, then I know of a company that owns a bridge in Brooklyn — and have I got a deal for you.
Second, the entire world of health care is fluid right now. Obamacare itself may be history next year, but once the responsibility for management of this money is shifted from local school boards to the state it is gone forever, and one more big piece of our schools and community is taken out of the hands of the people who are paying the bills and who are most connected to the expense.
Third, the same health care plans and savings can be implemented or adopted at the district level or the supervisory union level. In that case, to the extent that there are genuine savings to be recognized, they are guaranteed to go toward property tax relief, as opposed to Montpelier’s latest whim.
I am surprised that so many Republicans would jump on this bandwagon. Most Republicans I know profess to have faith in grassroots democracy. Once this authority and the responsibility for this spending is shifted from local school boards to Montpelier, it is gone forever and it becomes one more piece of our lives that is managed by people who aren’t our neighbors.
The notion that if we give this power to the state and save $26 million plays well in the papers. The governor gets to create a perception of fighting to save money against those awful tax and spend spendthrifts in the Legislature. It is good politics. It isn’t good policy. If anyone believes responsibility for spending millions of our property tax dollars is best left to Montpelier, as opposed to our neighbors, then I know of a company that owns a bridge in Brooklyn — and have I got a deal for you.
The savings the governor is talking about can easily be achieved at the local level, with far greater assurance that those savings will be spent prudently. Importantly, we could be shaping much wiser public policies if there was an association in Montpelier that actually represented local school boards. Some of the hardest-working and most capable public servants in our state serve on local school boards. We are in the process of throwing away much of that talent and leadership. The refrain from that anti-war song from the ’60s asked “When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?” It is a good question.