Attack on teacher benefits neither fact-based nor fair

In a September Heights Observer opinion piece (“18 residents call on CH-UH school district to fix health care spending”) rife with inaccuracies, flawed reasoning and unfair assumptions, Tony Cuda and 17 co-signers urged the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union (CHTU) to agree to a cut in members’ health benefits, so that the CH-UH City School District can reduce its operating budget. While Cuda does not mention Issue 69 [the proposed school operating levy], he strongly implies that if greedy teachers and their families would sacrifice for the greater good, there would be no need for the 4.8 mill levy on the Nov. 3 ballot.

Cuda et al. believe that, because teachers in neighboring districts (specifically Shaker Heights and Beachwood) pay a larger percentage of their health insurance premiums, along with higher deductibles, it is “fiscally responsible” and “fair” to impose comparable costs on CH-UH teachers. They fail to consider that health benefits are just one component of an overall compensation package.

Negotiating a contract involves trade-offs, which vary from district to district. CH-UH teachers chose low out-of-pocket health-care costs in exchange for a salary freeze for three years out of the past nine. Former CHTU Vice President Brian Schaner, in a letter to Cuda, cited “higher salaries, retirement pick-up, longevity pay and other benefits to teachers in [Shaker Heights and Beachwood], that our members do not have.” Tuition reimbursement is also available in those districts, but not to CH-UH educators, many of whom earn as much as $10,000 a year less than their Shaker and Beachwood peers.

Since the early 2000s, CHTU members have paid a premium share for their health insurance. During the last contract negotiation, in 2016, the parties agreed to a fixed amount, which at that time was 10 percent. As the premium has increased, that fixed amount now covers 7.7 percent.

Cuda claims the district could save $7 million per year by increasing the premium share and deductibles, and eliminating family coverage, but he doesn’t explain how he got this figure. CHTU leaders estimate that cutting $7 million in benefits would cost each of their members $8,000 to $9,000 per year, regardless of whether they earn $100,000 or $30,000.

The imperative to bring employee compensation in line with “the market” has its own relentless logic. Suppose we make the proposed cuts, and another district slashes health benefits further? Do we then “level down” to match them? How long before we are engaged in the proverbial race to the bottom? And how would that affect our ability to attract and retain experienced and gifted teachers?

Public education has been under attack for more than 40 years. High-stakes testing has cynically undermined confidence in the schools that serve our most impoverished children. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that funding education with property taxes is unconstitutional, yet this inequitable system remains in place. State law requires levies just so districts can keep up with inflation. Vouchers and now EdChoice have siphoned millions of our tax dollars from our public schools to private institutions.

If we as a nation had the will to fix our bloated, broken health care system, there would be no bargaining table tussles over health care benefits. The United States is the only industrialized country where access to medical care depends on employment.

CH-UH teachers have sacrificed pay and valuable benefits to obtain excellent, affordable health care for themselves and their families. To demand that they give this up, especially during a pandemic, is punitive and unjust.

Deborah Van Kleef

Deborah Van Kleef has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. A third-generation union activist, she is a member of American Federation of Musicians Local 4 and Local 1000.

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Volume 13, Issue 10, Posted 5:48 PM, 09.30.2020