The Merrill Area Public Schools Board of Education gave preliminary approval Monday to a budget for the 2013-14 school year, as well as changes to the health insurance plan to current employees as well as modified the benefits for retired employees.
The proposed general fund budget would increase from $32.4 million for the 2012-13 school year to $33.7 and the mill rate go up 11.4 percent.
It was the last meeting of the board before three members leave office, and the tensions and animosity that has hampered progress on some of the issues being voted on was barely in check. Meredith Prebeg did not seek reelection in the April 2 election while Board President Lin Kautza and Vice President Chuck Bolder were not reelected. John Shull, Jeff Verdoorn and Norbert “Nubs” Ashbeck will take their places before the next regular meeting at the end of the month.
The Board first tackled the issue of changing insurance carriers for next year. Finance Director Brian Dasher recommended that the board change from Security Health Plan to the Wisconsin County’s Association but leave the current three options in place for next year. Currently employees can opt between three plans with various premium and deduction rates, with over 80 percent opting for the third plan.
Dasher recommended that the current structure be left in place for 2013-14 but announced that there will only be the third option after that. He also recommended that the district start a Wellness Program that would help cut premium costs in the future for the district and participants. The cost per person for the later would be $199 a year, but this would include health screens and ongoing health education services. The district recently received a grant that would cover most of the startup costs.
The change in carriers would mean a 3.47 percent or $161,000 increase from this year. However, staying with the current carrier would have cost $182,000 more.
It was noted that eliminating the first two options would affect retirees because they have the same health insurance options as current employees.
The board approved the changes 8-0 (with Kautza abstaining) on both proposals.
When the Board turned its attention to other matters of retirement benefits, three members wanted to postpone a decision until the new board members took office. Loretta Baughan said she felt that such a decision should be made by the new board.
“I just don’t feel comfortable at this time doing anything,” she said.
Baughan, Gene Bondioli and Kelly Collins voted for a motion to table the matter, but the other five members voted against the motion. They then approved the change, which offers teachers who retire from the district after 15 years of service and at least 55 years old an HRA contribution of $12,500 per year for seven years but not to exceed the Medicare eligibility. The benefit sunsets after June 30, 2015. The motion passed by a 6-3 vote with Baughan, Bolndioli and Collins voting against.
Then the board turned to the proposed budget, which they had discussed at a special meeting on April 2. Again Baughan, Bondioli and Collins sought to delay the vote until the end of the month but were voted down. Dasher noted that while the district was facing sending out just one preliminary layoff notice this year, if the board was going to do anything to change the figures, such as under levy, he would have to know that now so that the district can identify and notify those persons who would be receiving layoff notices by the end of the month.
With the ability to reduce staff as a way to cut costs off the table, finding any significant cost reductions elsewhere would be hard.
“I just can’t see any way to do it,” he said.
The board voted along the same 6-3 division to approve the proposed budget.
While some of the revenues that went into the preliminary budget are still unknown, some of the questions Dasher had at the April 2 meeting have been answered. The biggest was spending on students in virtual schooling. The Bridges Academy has proven to be a financial boon for MAPS, and will be capped at 800 students next year. The enrollment in Bridges this year gave the district an upward spike in numbers after more than a decade of declining enrollment. While this is just a momentary upturn, it left the district with a budget surplus rather than a deficit.
However, the legislature had recently passed a bill which raised questions across the state on how much districts had to spend on students in charter and virtual schools. At the April 2 meeting, Dasher said that if the measure meant that the full amount of state aid had to be spent on each of these students like regular classroom students, it would erase the surplus and make the Bridges program too much of a drain on the district to keep.
After Monday’s meeting, Dasher said that he had heard from area legislators who said a fix to the language was in the works. Other budget uncertainties such as state aid amounts and other things tied to the biannual budget won’t be known until June. Some areas of the budget that receive federal dollars are also being affected by the sequester.