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Fees rise, budget hit hard
Schools insurance premiums increase
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In light of rising insurance premiums and increasing stress on budgets, Dawson County school officials met recently with leaders from other districts to discuss the possibility of pulling out of government health care.

Other north Georgia school systems including Gwinnett, which took part in the meeting at Dawson County Middle School, are reportedly researching the matter.

Representatives of Alexander & Company, an employee benefits firm that specializes in school system clients and which works with Dawson County, led the gathering.

According to Dawson School Superintendent Keith Porter, the biggest obstacle appears to be a state law that prevents Georgia school systems from removing themselves from the current health care system.

"It would take changes in legislation for this to occur," Porter said. "The [setup] now prohibits the possibility of pulling out."

The local school system's budget took a major hit earlier when the Department of Community Health raised health care insurance premiums for the current school year.

The hike totaled $50 per month for each of the system's more than 230 classified employees, which include bus drivers, custodians and lunchroom workers. Certified staff, such as teachers and administrators, were not affected.

The switch, which came after the school board had approved the year's budget, likely will end up costing the system more than $100,000 for the year, according to Porter.

The school district also learned that the $50 increase per month for the 2011-12 school year will be followed by three years of $150 per month increases.

"This will significantly impact our budget as this total amount is the sole responsibility of the employer," Porter said. "We estimate that it will cost us between $1.2 and $1.4 million over the three-year period."

Currently, the system pays about $2,350 annually per classified employee.

Another significant obstacle to opting out is that classified employees could lose access to insurance after retirement.

"It would appear that, even if the legislation allowed flexibility to go with other companies, there would be no assurance that classified employees would have access to health insurance upon retirement," Porter said.

"We certainly don't want this coverage void to be the case for those who have served our system so well through the years."

Officials say that the predicament seems to be at an impasse, with no relief in sight.

The news of rising health care costs comes as the local school system likely will see the tax digest drop for the second year in a row.

"We are cutting in all areas to try to offset these dire financial circumstances by making substantial cuts in instructional budgets, personnel, instructional programs and other specific concentration areas in the budget," Porter said.

"It is a really difficult proposition when we aren't given any hope of future increases in revenue coming from the state other than a small increase to the school nursing grant."

Adding to the budget crunch, the school system must contend with more than $2.5 million in austerity cuts from the state.

Dawson County's current millage rate as set by the Board of Education and the county commissioners is 24.334 mills.

The school board's portion of that rate rose this year to 15.546 mills. A mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value.