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Tuesday, March 3, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 32.0° F  Overcast
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Going to the mat for WPS
School board yields to pressure to keep costlier insurance option
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Mathiak: 'What we've done is taken away a huge bargaining chip.'
Mathiak: 'What we've done is taken away a huge bargaining chip.'

Suzanne Fatupaito, a nurse's assistant in Madison schools, is fed up with Wisconsin Physicians Service, the preferred health insurance provider of Madison Teachers Inc.

"MTI uses scare tactics" to maintain teacher support for WPS, Fatupaito recently wrote to the school board. "If members knew that another insurance [plan] would offer similar services to WPS and was less expensive - it would be a no-brainer."

WPS, with a monthly price tag of $1,720 for family coverage, is one of two health coverage options available to the district's teachers. The other is Group Health Cooperative, costing $920 monthly for a family plan.

During the past year, the Madison school board has reached agreements with other employee groups to switch from WPS to HMO plans, with most of the savings going to boost pay.

In December, the board held a secret vote in closed session to give up its right to seek health insurance changes should negotiations on the 2007-09 teachers contract go into binding arbitration. (The board can seek voluntary insurance changes during negotations.)

"What we've done is taken away a huge bargaining chip," says board member Lucy Mathiak. "Every other major industry and public sector has had to deal with health-insurance changes, and we've got a very real $10 million deficit."

MTI Executive Director John Matthews says other employee unions "made a big mistake" in switching to HMO plans. Matthews has long maintained that WPS provides superior coverage, despite its higher costs and disproportionate number of complaints. And he defends the paycheck he collects from WPS as a member of its board, saying he's better able to lobby for his teachers.

Three board members - Mathiak, Ruth Robarts and Lawrie Kobza - voted against giving up the right to push for health insurance changes in arbitration, Isthmus has learned. But a thin majority - Johnny Winston Jr., Carol Carstensen, Shwaw Vang and Arlene Silveira - supported it.

Mathiak says "we were told we couldn't talk about it," but after reading an item last week in Isthmus in which Carstensen discussed a closed-session vote, Mathiak says she asked the board's lawyer and got a green light to speak. Robarts is also talking about what was done in closed session: "The public has a right to know how we vote. This is a big policy decision. We should be politically accountable for our decisions."

Meanwhile, the board members who voted to foreclose this option have declined to discuss it. Says Silveira, "We were told we can't comment on this at all" until the agreement is filed with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. Carstensen also declined comment. Vang didn't return a phone call.

Winston, in an e-mail, said this: "I have a responsibility under board policy not to divulge confidential and privileged communication that has been discussed in closed-session meetings."

Perhaps Winston is still smarting over the tongue-lashing he received from MTI after indicating he was open to options. In an article headlined "He Wants Your Health Insurance," the union's newsletter scolded, "Winston wants to use the money you now have available for health care, at your option, to pay the district's heating bills and other expenses."

As further punishment, MTI declined to endorse Winston in his bid for reelection. "They want Johnny to feel the lack of resources," speculates Robarts, noting that an MTI endorsement brings a candidate not just money but volunteers for leafleting and phone banks.

Matthews says MTI's decision not to endorse Winston is intended to "get him to think about what he's doing as president of the board."

According to Matthews, the upcoming school board election is crucial for MTI, which could lose control of the board's majority for the first time in years.

Running for seat 3, Beth Moss, endorsed by MTI, says she favors winning changes through negotiations. Rick Thomas says his independence better positions him to fight for change, and that "cutting jobs...just to give more money to insurance companies is not being a good steward of the taxpayers' money."

Winston, running for re-election for Seat 4, declined comment: "If I answer your questions, it will compromise the board's ability to negotiate a successful contract." His challenger, Tom Brew, did not reply.

In the race for Seat 5, Marj Passman, a retired teacher running with MTI's endorsement, sounds like she's reading a script Matthews had written, saying "not one single penny" would be saved by changing insurance plans because "the money is the teachers' entirely, to be divided as they wish."

But her opponent, Maya Cole, favors changes, saying high insurance costs "threaten our ability to hire and retain quality teachers by suppressing starting salaries and take-home pay."

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