BAR HARBOR — Whether the Mount Desert Island school system should operate as a single unit for employees’ health benefits will be decided by the local school boards and the school system board in the coming weeks.
The MDI Regional School System operates under an Alternative Organizational Structure (AOS), which means its individual school units share system administration but are separate employers responsible for hiring of all principals, teachers and support staff.
Though each group of employees is a separate bargaining unit, each school employer and teachers’ association (except Mount Desert) follows a “common contract” with the same terms for compensation and benefits.
Because of the separate employer status, costs to the towns for health benefits can vary widely.
State Sen. Brian Langley (R-Hancock) and Rep. Brian Hubbell (D-Bar Harbor) sponsored an emergency bill in the last legislature allowing an AOS to purchase group health insurance for its employees and retirees – acting as a single employer only in that respect.
Superintendent Marc Gousse invited representatives of the teachers’ unions to the meeting Sept. 19 to be part of a discussion of this issue. He said he also plans to meet with them individually and create a “frequently asked questions” document.
“It’s an all-or-nothing proposition – we all go together, or we don’t go at all,” he said at the meeting. “We do have a little breathing room, time to give everyone an opportunity to discuss and understand the proposal.”
He recommended that individual boards take up the question in November and the school system board make a final decision in December. It would impact spring 2017 for the setting of budgets, he said.
“Our primary concern was the common contract,” AOS board Chair Charlie Wray said at the meeting. “The cost of coverage disparity – for two identical teachers in different towns – is not a good thing. The general belief is the larger the pool, the smaller the impact of a single incident.”
Mount Desert Elementary School teacher Kelly Beaulieu agreed. “If a family is going through a medical crisis, they know they’re going to cause a rate spike,” she said. “It’s bad for morale in that sense.”
She also noted that this decision about health insurance is separate from conversations about moving to a single employer structure overall. “The pros and cons of one don’t necessarily have anything to do with the other,” she said. “I think you’re going to get better discussions” if the issues are kept separate.
The state Department of Education has nothing to do with the decision, Gousse told the Islander this week. “We would not be changing plans, carriers or benefit structure. But it would likely mean greater rate stability.”