Claims that South-Western City Schools could save $5-million by cutting employee benefits don't tell a complete story, school officials say.

Claims that South-Western City Schools could save $5-million by cutting employee benefits don't tell a complete story, school officials say.

Cindy Legue, a certified public accountant and budget analyst for a company she declined to name, and her father, Bob Ruth, a retired Columbus Dispatch investigative reporter, proposed during the Sept. 14 school board meeting that more than $5-million could be saved by cutting district employees' benefits.

Based on district documents they obtained by public records requests, Legue and Ruth said $3.3-million could be saved if employees paid 35 percent of the cost for single-employee health care coverage.
District Treasurer Hugh Garside said their claim is true, but unrealistic. It's cheaper for the district to have employees on single-employee coverage, he said.

Garside said it costs the district $548 per month per employee opting for single coverage. It costs the district $962 per month for each employee on the family health care coverage plan.

The school board pays 65 percent for employees on the district's family health care coverage plan. Garside said 599 district employees chose the family plan.

The school board pays 100 percent of health care costs for the 1,388 district employees who choose the district's single-employee health care plan.

The district has a total of 2,433 employees.

If an employee chooses neither option, the school board pays him or her $1,200 annually. Garside said 164 employees choose no plan.

Even with the $1,200 each, Garside said each employee who chooses no option saves the district $5,376, compared to each employee to selects single coverage. Those savings total $881,782 per year, he said.

"It's more expensive to be on the family plan for the board," Garside said. "If all (employees) went from single to family (coverage), our costs would increase by $5-million a year.

"It's just where do you set the level of employee contribution where people stay on single (coverage) versus going to family?" he said.

He said charging employees 35 percent for single coverage would shift numbers of those who choose the other two options, possibly reducing costs to the district, possibly increasing costs.

"They're looking at one half of the equation," Garside said. "There's a tipping point somewhere."

According to a report from Ohio's State Employment Relations Board, employees of school districts in Ohio on average pay 11.2 percent of family coverage costs. South-Western employees pay 35 percent, higher than the state average.

The state average of employees who choose single coverage plans is 9.6 percent. South-Western employees pay nothing.

Garside said some change is needed in the single coverage plan to control costs better.

"But at what point do you charge too much and change participation?" he added.

Superintendent Bill Wise said district officials since 2006 implemented six changes in the district health care design plan to save money. Those changes included switching to a self-insured district. The district pays its own claims, while Aetna Health Insurance processes them.

Garside said school officials implemented preventive health measures, such as biometric screening.

Officials also increased co-pay charges for employees, introduced deductibles and co-insurance plans and the $1,200 buyout option. All are measures taken to save money, Wise said.

"Health care costs are a concern for all employers, especially in today's tight economic markets," he said. "It's an area where we will continue to focus and find additional efficiencies."

Also, Legue and Ruth's interpretation of district figures showed a possible $1-million in savings if the district required administrators to pay their own 10-percent retirement contribution.

They said the retirement contribution is tax-free.

Garside said the contribution is taxed and the 10-percent retirement contribution was negotiated in lieu of base salary increases.

"The costs are identical," he said.

He said in order to save the $1-million proposed by Legue and Ruth, administrators would have to agree to no future increase on pay and benefits.

Garside said it is common for school district administrators to opt for retirement contributions instead of pay increases.

Legue and Ruth outlined more than $50,000 spent on food-catering services for the district.

Garside said much of that catering was paid for through grants for students and staff. The food was purchased to reward student achievement, provide refreshments for parent outreach meetings or teacher development classes.

Wise said in some instances teacher development classes are after school hours. Teachers are offered no compensation beyond a food incentive.

Another cut proposed by Ruth and Legue involved elimination of the district's community relations department, proposing the district could save $254,000.

Wise said the department is necessary to the district.

"It impacts many facets of our organization," he said.

According to Ohio Department of Education figures, 22.5 communications positions served the 63,497 students at Columbus City Schools in fiscal year 2008; while 2.5 positions supported the 22,238 students at South-Western schools.