MERIDEN – Tensions flared between Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni and City Finance Director Michael Lupkas during a discussion on how the city funds health insurance Monday.
The Board of Education is considering switching to state health insurance to save money after a $2.5-million spike in health insurance charges from the city pushed the board to cut 26 positions.
“What worries me is this is round one,” Meriden Teachers’ Union President Erin Benham said of the job cuts. “If I can get 1 million (dollars) in savings in health care from the state, there’s my teachers.”
The Board of Education previously submitted a $104.5-million budget request to the city, a 4.82 percent increase over the current fiscal year’s budget. The school system has not received a significant increase to its budget since the 2009-10 fiscal year, when the city voted to give the district a 1.47 percent increase.
On Monday, the school system’s budget request was reduced to $103.8 million after the board voted to cut $1.9 million in programs and staff, including 14 academic coaches and 12 classified positions.
“You can’t have a budget that is so driven by an increase in health costs at a time when you are getting no additional funding, because then you are being asked to actually do with less,” Benigni said.
Last year, former city manager Guy Scaife cut $890,000 from the board’s health insurance costs for the current fiscal year. Finance Director Michael Lupkas said the deduction was “a one-time situation.”
The board’s health insurance costs are calculated using census data, Lupkas said.
“They feel they are being overcharged, the city is turning around and saying, ‘hey, we’re the insurance company and if you go over your account you’re not liable,’” Lupkus said. “If you go under the city is not liable.”
Benigni estimated the city should have an excess of $8 million in unused funds from the board in the health insurance fund. During the meeting, Benigni pressed Lupkas to show financial information regarding the city’s health insurance expenditures, prompting both to raise their voices and began talking over one another.
Benigni said a “lack of transparency” by the city has led to “distrust” on the board over the health insurance line item. In an effort to cut costs, Benigni said the board is considering getting health insurance from the state rather than the city.
Should the board and teachers’ union agree to move to a state insurance plan, the city would be unable to prevent it, Benigni said.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati, who previously served on the Board of Education, acknowledged an “inequity” with how health insurance had been funded for the school system and that a serious discussion is needed on how health insurance is funded moving forward.
“It’s not fair to look for that $2-million-plus increase in health insurance all while not giving them an increase in their budget whatsoever to operate,” Scarpati said.