A letter delivered less than two hours before Monday night’s Hays USD 489 Board of Education meeting derailed any thoughts of board members making a decision on changing insurance plans for district employees.

When the board was delivered a letter at approximately 5 p.m. Monday ahead of the 6:45 p.m. meeting at Rockwell Administrative Center, union officials called into question motives of board members.

“For lack of a better term, 28 of them are holding the district hostage and not allowing us to make any decisions on this,” said BOE President Lance Bickle. “I just want to make sure that that is brought up publicly.”

Board members took exception to the letter, from SEIU and Hays NEA representatives, that said possible legal action could be taken if the board voted Monday to move ahead with a switch from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The district has been looking at alternative health insurance plans to save the district money. While it was revealed in a recent board meeting that USD 489 would have to pay a penalty for leaving the plan early, the cost savings associated with a move would be more than the increases expected from staying with the state plan.

“It comes down to that some people are very comfortable with it,” Bickle said about the current plan. “We’ve said very openly from Day 1 that nobody had anything against Blue Cross by itself — nothing wrong with it. Blue Cross is a very good plan. The issue is where we stand as being part of a state plan. So — we as a board in looking at different ways we could go through, No. 1, the massive increases to the state plan, by the time all is said and done going into next June or July — we’ll have seen about at $1.4 million increase. You divide that out by teachers and everybody else, and that’s about a $1,400 raise per month per person, because we as a district pay 100 percent of that premium. We pay 55 percent of the premium for families.”

Tracy Kaiser, executive director of finance and support services, said the cost per month per person for what the district pays will be approximately $736 in the near future. That’s for a single plan, and does not include the district paying 55 percent of a family plan.

“The one item in all the conversations that I’ve had that’s been a negative towards the change is based on Blue Cross Blue Shield versus anything else,” said Superintendent John Thissen. “In the conversation, it’s, ‘We don’t want to lose Blue Cross Blue Shield.’ I would say that has to be, in my conversations, actually, maybe even 100 percent is what it boils down to.”

“If money were not an issue for this district, then we wouldn’t even be having this discussion,” Bickle said. “But to hear the issue that people do not like leaving Blue Cross, that is not the issue. Unfortunately, money doesn’t grow on trees. We do have to go through and work hard on this budget to get to the point we need to be at.”

Board members said they recently heard that trust was a key concern when discussing a possible large bond issue to renovate and improve buildings in the district.

Some questioned whether continuing to pay such large amounts for insurance was a wise use of taxpayer dollars when a competing plan offered nearly identical options.

“We heard from the bond presentation committee just recently that one of the issues that still lingers out there is trust,” said board member Josh Waddell. “Maybe I’m confused now more about what trust is supposed to be. We talk about being financial stewards for the district, trying to make every taxpayer dollar that is the most efficient. That’s what we’re trying to do. The public needs to know that that’s what we’re trying to do here. We’re not trying to get some low-budget benefits package passed through so our bottom line looks better. No. We’re actually trying to improve the benefits package while trying to make the tax dollar expenditures more efficient. The trust piece, that’s what the community should want from us. The employees should trust us to want to bring something to them that is very beneficial and to take care of them. That is what I believe this school board has done. Therefore, I believe that deserves some sort of trust. I’m going to be honest with you: I am lacking some sort of trust in the leadership right now from these unions.”

The district has seen large increases in health insurance in the past few months, and more are expecting at the first of the year.

Bickle noted switching plans could save a significant amount of money.

“So I guess more than anything, I want to make this abundantly clear, we as a board are trying to go through and do things knowing we have some huge expenditures coming up with health insurance — another $400,000 increase,” he said. “We were trying to work to free some things up for raises for salaries and things like that. Obviously, that makes it tough if we’re going to have to go through and make sure we’re shelling out another $800,000 when all is said and done.”

The district and union have had negotiations in the past to try to sort through issues, and the board members thought most things were ironed out.

That is, until the letter arrived prior to the meeting.

“It is very frustrating and disappointing,” said BOE Vice President Mandy Fox. “We’ve been working for months, years to better this plan. And they’ve had educational meetings, even a week ago, when we discussed this at tedium. To have the letter handed to us today at 5, when they knew there could be action taken tonight at 6:45 when the meeting was called to order, is very, very unsettling to me.”

Board member Luke Oborny asked if a certain number of employees could be moved to a new plan, but that is not capable of happening due to union agreements.

A portion of the letter given to the board states: “While the Board may anticipate savings from this change, in any legal proceeding filed based on the board’s action, Hays NEA will be asking for any financial damages incurred by bargaining unit members as a result of this change including any medical expenses not covered by Aetna that would have been covered under the agreed upon State of Kansas Non State Group Health Plan.

“We have every intention of enforcing our contract. We strongly encourage you to take this into consideration when discussing health care benefits and any possible changes.”

The letter infuriated the board members.

“If we move forward now, we’re being threatened with a lawsuit?” Waddell asked.

“Yes,” Bickle answered

No action was taken on the issue, and members will work with the board attorney to see what the next steps are to be taken.