Note: This story was last updated at 12 a.m.
Teaching assistants have been united, and sometimes fierce, in their opposition to a proposal to outsource their jobs to a private company, and on Monday, Oak Ridge Schools Superintendent Bruce Borchers said administrators might have to “go back to the drawing board.”
The outsourcing proposal began as an attempt to help the school system comply with the reporting requirements of the Affordable Care Act and to avoid potentially large fines of up to $1.2 million for errors that might be made in following the new federal health care law.
But in the second half of a 3.5-hour school board meeting on Monday, teachers, teaching assistants, family members, and parents said the TAs would be concerned about their health care and retirement benefits if they were to become employees of PESG of Nashville. The 10 speakers also questioned the benefits of outsourcing in general, and they praised the work of Oak Ridge’s teaching assistants.
“A lot of these TAs are the heart of the educational program,” said Boyce Griffith, who said his wife has been a TA for 17 years.
“I think that outsourcing would be detrimental to the school system,” said parent Autumn Moorhouse.
Last week, Oak Ridge Schools Assistant Superintendent Chris Marczak said the proposal to hire PESG would allow current employees to keep their jobs, save money as the system looks at a possible $2 million budget shortfall, and help the schools comply with the ACA reporting requirements. He said there would be a negligible impact on TAs, and the only thing that would change would be the name of their employer.
But it’s not clear that school board members are convinced that outsourcing is the best solution. Board member Angi Agle questioned the source of the estimated savings, estimated to range between about $900,000 and $1.7 million during a five-year period. She said the proposed retirement plan under PESG would not be as attractive as the state retirement system.
“It troubles me that we are looking at taking this money from some of the lowest-paid employees,” said Agle, who received a standing ovation from TAs, substitute teachers, and paraprofessionals who would also be affected by the outsourcing proposal. Several dozen of them wore red, showing their solid support for stopping the proposal.
N. Henry Bledsoe, PESG president and chief executive officer, gave a presentation on what his company might offer. He said PESG would work to serve the school system.
“The only way we survive…is to be a partner,” Bledsoe said. “PESG does not come into a community to cause harm.”
School officials said they do not have to make an immediate decision. Agle said Oak Ridge schools already meet a requirement to have 70 percent of their employees covered or offered full-time coverage more than 10 months ahead of the Jan. 1, 2015, deadline under the health care law.
Oak Ridge education officials, including Borchers, said other districts across the country are also wrestling with the question of how to comply with the new health care law. But Borchers said Oak Ridge doesn’t currently have the proper software to monitor its compliance with the law, including to track whether some employees are staying under 30 hours per week—or should be offered health insurance coverage.
School officials said they are not trying to eliminate jobs, and they value their employees.
“We know the value of teaching assistants and what they do,” Oak Ridge Board of Education Chair Keys Fillauer said.
Borchers said administrators were trying to offer options to the school board.
“It may be that we alter the proposal,” he said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
See previous story here.