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School District Could Buy Laptop For Every Student If Teachers Paid Private-Sector Average For Health Care

East Grand Rapids technology plan could be funded with help from new state law

(Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from the school district's superintendent.)

This fall, East Grand Rapids Public School District is implementing a controversial program where parents of high school students are "encouraged" to provide their own laptop computers for their children to be used in school.

The plans are to start a program in the middle school in 2013-14 and in the third through fifth grades in 2014-15.

However, the school district may have a way of freeing up money to provide the computers free to students by bringing its health care costs more in line with the private sector.

Currently, the East Grand Rapids Public School teacher’s contract states that the district pays 100 percent of the health care costs for its employees as long as MESSA insurance rates don’t increase higher than a certain amount. In 2011-12, the contract states if MESSA rates increase by 6 percent or more, teachers have to cover part of that increased cost.

East Grand Rapids Superintendent Sara Shubel said teachers paid $480 a year for their health care costs in 2011-12. Shubel said the district will cap its maximum contributions for health care after the teachers’ contract expires at the end of August.

Shubel said the district has also put out to bid its health insurance services and have received bids. MESSA, considered the Cadillac of health care plans in Michigan, is a third-party administrator affiliated with the Michigan Education Association teachers union that buys health insurance from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and resells it to school districts.

Based on 2010-11 data the school district gave the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, East Grand Rapids paid $2.02 million on teacher health care for 133 teachers.

Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, estimated that the district would save $403,000 a year once teachers started paying 20 percent of the health care costs. However, if the district did what some other districts have done and shopped for a less expensive health care plan other than MESSA, the savings would be even more.

Van Beek estimated that if the district bought health insurance that equaled private sector costs in Michigan and teachers paid 20 percent of these less expensive plans, the district's savings would jump to $672,000 a year.

Just that change would allow the school to buy about 1,800 laptops a year, based on the least expensive computer available on the school's website.

The school district has about 970 students in the high school, 740 students in the middle school and 1,270 in the elementary schools.

"One-to-one laptop programs are very promising, because they can help individualize instruction for students," Van Beek said. "But, taxpaying parents shouldn't have to pay for them in a free public school. In fact, other districts in Michigan have implemented similar programs at no cost to parents."

Shubel said any savings from health care negotiations would first be used to maintain long-term financial stability.

“The immediate savings will not be applied to individual student technology in the short term, but it is something we would consider in the future if we are able to maintain financial stability,” Shubel wrote in an email.

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See also:

Teacher Contract Analysis

Coverage of School District Claiming Cuts

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