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Teachers struggle with higher benefit costs

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The Ellis County Press

ELLIS COUNTY - State budget cuts will have an enormous impact on local school districts, according to teachers here.

Lawmakers in Austin once campaigned on providing teachers health benefits and insurance, but because of a $10 billion budget deficit and a weak economy, those perks have gone to the wayside.

'The public doesn't know how bad it is, they really don't,' said Midlothian Independent School District teacher Leslie Franz. 'What the legislature is doing will have a major impact on us, and the kids. And that's a shame.'

Franz, the coordinator for the MISD chapter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said teachers within the western Ellis County district could see 25 percent increases in health insurance premiums.

'We will have coverage but the premiums will go up and the amount the state paid towards the premium will go down,' she said. 'To have ‘middle-of-the-road' coverage for an employee and family will be about $600 a month out of the teacher's pocket.'

Additionally, teachers considering retirement could see their pensions decrease as a result of the cost-cuts, according to the ATPE website.

Texas' Teacher Retire-

ment System retiree health insurance program will need an additional $720 million during the next biennium to continue at current levels, according to the website.

Some of the state senate recommendations include reducing the $1,000 health insurance funding lawmakers campaigned heavily on last session to $550 for teachers, nurses, librarians and counselors.

Reductions were also slated for support staff, who would receive a $100 decrease from the previous $300; that reduction would also include part-time school district employees.

State lawmakers, who have vowed no new tax increases this session, recommended doubling payroll taxes teachers pay to help fund the retiree system and also urged districts to begin contributing a 5 percent payroll tax to help fund the TRS.

Those changes, if approved and signed by Gov. Rick Perry, wouldn't take effect until 2005.

In addition to the senate recommendations, administrative staff would no longer be eligible for what the state calls, 'supplemental compensation.'

Included in the administrative staff are principals, and their assistants.

The retired teachers, if these latest recommendations are approved, would see a 33 percent hike in premiums. The state, according to several Ellis County teachers, was in its first year of providing a $1,000-a-year insurance credit to instructors and other employees, but now the lawmakers are taking it back, or reducing it substantially.

'That just sends a horrible message to the teaching profession,' said Italy ISD Superintendent Mike Clifton.

Italy school board members recently approved a $500-increase for teachers who have taught less than 20 years, according to Clifton.

Because of the steady increase in student enrollment, Clifton said Italy will have a 'healthy fund balance,' to keep up with the increases in teacher benefits and retirement funding.

'There will be changes on the horizon, so two years from now, we'll see what the state legislature will be doing to us,' Clifton said. 'But we're fine now.'

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