PASCO — Kristi Williams says a plan to overhaul health care for K-12 school employees is the latest attempt by state lawmakers to undermine education.
Surrounded by people wearing red "We Teach Washington" T-shirts and holding posters, she noted the loss of cost-of-living salary increases, professional days and salary cuts in recent years.
"They just keep hitting public education over and over again," said the music teacher from Robert Frost Elementary School in Pasco.
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More than 400 teachers and their supporters from the Tri-Cities and throughout the Mid-Columbia gathered in the gym at Chiawana High School in Pasco in response to Senate Bill 6442 -- a proposal that would put all public school employees under new health insurance coverage and overseen by a new state department, the School Employees Benefits Board.
Proponents of the bill have said it will reduce administrative costs and make the price of coverage more equitable among all school workers.
Many at the rally, though, described the bill as an unnecessary intrusion into their health care that would cost more money and strain school districts.
"We have teachers who get second jobs just to meet ends meet," Randy Hoover, a building representative with Kennewick Education Association, said to the crowd.
Currently, individual school districts offer health benefits to their employees determined through negotiations with employee unions.
State Sens. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, and Jana Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake, said they are sponsoring the bill after hearing from classified employees in public schools, such as secretaries and custodians. Those employees have said the cost of their health care takes the lion's share of their salaries.
"I found this to be a way to give school employees raises without raising revenue," Holmquist Newbry said.
Consolidating health care for people working in public schools could also save millions of dollars in administrative costs, the senators said.
Teachers and their advocates said the proposal would cost $45 million to set up and give them less say on what benefits they would receive. Additionally, teachers would be charged a new monthly subscriber rate of up to $5 for their new coverage.
"The state is only saving money by shifting costs onto teachers and school districts," said Jim Gow, a regional director of the Washington Education Association.
Gloria Williamson, a fifth-grade teacher at Cottonwood Elementary School in Kennewick, said she had heard good and bad things about the bill, but came looking for more information.
Fellow Cottonwood fifth-grade teacher Gina Luppino said teachers are just concerned about themselves and their families.
"We're educated people; we want to be educated," she said of the legislation.
Many, though, spent the latter part of the event writing postcards to state lawmakers opposing the bill and signing a rebuttal to a Tri-City Herald editorial supporting the bill.
Holmquist Newbry said she didn't see the criticisms that some teachers have raised. Delvin said he still is evaluating the bill and talking to teachers about its potential impacts.