Down to strike basics

Red Wing Republican Eagle

A letter-writing campaign by Red Wing teachers is attempting to put pressure on the community, especially the business community, to push the School Board for a strike settlement. It’s time for taxpayers — those who bear the ultimate burden — to sift through the emotions and get down to basics.

The two issues that separate the district and the teachers are wages and health insurance. The situation is made worse because many people are developing opinions based on misinformation.

On pay, both sides are actually pretty close and Red Wing teachers fare favorably in comparison with peers. Red Wing teachers were paid an average salary of $46,224 last year, and the statewide average was $42,770. Local union leadership says the numbers are skewed due to a senior staff. But some barometer must be used, and data from the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning seems a reliable measuring post.

The bigger logjam in negotiations appears to be health care. That debate, however, cannot be carried out in a vacuum. The concerns about rising health-care costs are common among big and small employers in both the private and public sectors.

The fact is that almost everyone — employees and employers alike — is taking a hit in the pocketbook for health care. And for good reason: Improvements in medicine in general and in drugs in particular are motivating all of us to devote a larger portion of income to the goal of living a longer and healthier life. Medical care is a good value, and it’s a wise diversion of disposable income.

The Red Wing School District, like most employers, is finding that health insurance gets heavy use. And usage is the measurement by which insurance companies set their premiums.

Health insurance tends to be the fastest rising cost for employers. For the teachers’ union alone, the Red Wing district paid more than $1.02 million in health-insurance premiums in the 2000-01 school year. Its share rose to nearly $1.67 million for 2001-02.

As a result, everyone has come to realize that choices must be made. If people want better health care, someone must pay the bill.

We don’t begrudge the teachers for wanting the best health care possible, but then they should be willing to absorb some of the rising cost instead of placing the sizable burden on all taxpayers.

The district made measurable movement on health insurance last week. In a nutshell, it proposed to move most teachers to a less expensive and less comprehensive plan. However, the district would have picked up any new out-of-pocket expenses incurred by teachers through June 2003. In the meantime, a labor-management committee would begin working to craft a uniform health package for all employees — including administration and members of other unions.

At the crux of the stalemate is that the district wants to cap its contribution toward insurance premiums. Most other Minnesota school districts are taking a similar approach. However, the teachers want it both ways. They want to keep the existing generous plan in which the district pays full premiums for single employees and 75 percent for those with family coverage and also get raises, steps and lanes on the salary schedule.

The teachers’ stance is troublesome to the rest of us who have seen our contributions to health insurance increase steadily in recent years. As a practical matter, if employees do not share appreciably in the higher costs, what is their incentive to control usage?

Taxpayers observing the strike from the sidelines have a clear opportunity to weigh in. Do taxpayers want teachers to have extraordinary protection against rising medical costs? Or should teachers have a bigger stake in rising costs, much the same as other workers who are contributing out of their pocketbooks for improved personal care?

Taxpayers must decide and then deliver that message to School Board members.