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EduLege Tracker 12-11-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 85
December 11, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association


About 7,800 retired Texas teachers have ditched the health insurance coverage that the state has created for them—and that’s a troubling new development for a program that faces a $700 million funding shortfall.

The abnormally large number of requests to leave the health insurance program, which is administered by the Teacher Retirement System of Texas, threatens to exacerbate the program’s budget woes and signals possible higher costs to retired teachers in the future.

“Before if somebody called and told me they were leaving TRS-Care, I would have said, ‘Why would you do that?’ and advise against it,” said Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association. “But this plan has become far more expensive, and there are real reasons that somebody may choose to leave … and most of it has been, can they afford it?”

TRS covers approximately 270,000 retired Texas educators. In previous years, the number of requests from retirees to opt out of TRS-Care has been about 1,500 or fewer per year.

The abandonment of TRS-Care comes after the Texas Legislature, earlier this year, tried to ensure the long-term stability of the program by hiking premium costs and deductibles for retirees under the age of 65 and limiting the networks of physicians and health care services for retirees and their families. Once a retiree reaches the age of 65, and becomes eligible for a new Medicare Advantage Plan, TRS says the financial burden to the state health care system is reduced.

After retirees inundated state legislators’ phone lines with concerns about the changes during the summer, the Legislature pumped another $212 million in the system during the special legislative session to lower premiums and deductibles. But it wasn’t enough to keep retirees from leaving the TRS health insurance program.

Mr. Lee is concerned that if too many retirees, especially those who are healthy, opt out of TRS health insurance, its unfunded liability will continue to balloon, which could translate to even higher costs for those retirees remaining in the system.

Additionally, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services did not receive from TRS certain information about the thousands of teachers who want out of TRS. As a result, many of those teachers weren’t able to buy health insurance elsewhere by the end of the program’s open enrollment period, which closed Nov. 30.

“These people have been put through the wringer, and some of them think that it’s just being done just to keep the (TRS) plan intact,” Mr. Lee said.

TRS has since given the required information to the federal agency, and most retirees who don’t want TRS insurance will be offered a special enrollment period that ends Feb. 28 to buy health insurance in the open market.

The ‘hurt’ that won’t heal anytime soon…

Senate leaders are warning that Hurricane Harvey could place a billion-dollar hole in Texas' next budget, and that could significantly impact how much money is available for other state programs.

“Our state costs are escalating,” Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, told her committee at a public hearing on the status of hurricane-recovery efforts. "We need to be judicious" in how state money continues to be spent.

Noting that only $20 million remains in a state disaster-assistance fund, she added, "If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?"

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

Updated numbers provided to the Senate committee show the state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

State Senator Royce West D-Dallas, suggested that those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state's Rainy Day Fund to expedite the recovery for thousands of Texans, some who are still living in motels and tents.

"So, we'd need to have a special (legislative) session" to approve that borrowing, Senator West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Governor Abbott has maintained that he does not want to call a special session, and intends to have state agencies to pay the storm bills now, with repayment by the Legislature in 2019.

Figure it out yourselves…

Personal information from students in 39 Texas school districts, juvenile justice programs and other education providers was likely exposed in a data breach involving a Texas Department of Agriculture employee's laptop.

The state-issued laptop was attacked by ransomware according to a notification of the office of Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. The breach is said to have exposed social security numbers, home addresses, birth dates and personal phone numbers of students and their families.

The department, which oversees the federal nutrition program that provides school breakfasts and lunches, has identified more than 700 students whose personal information was likely leaked as a result of the attack.

“I've been doing this a long time and this is pretty peculiar," said Ponder Superintendent Bruce Yeager, whose district is among those affected. "What's unusual is the way (the Texas Department of Agriculture) posted the notification and you had to go out and find it. The Department of Agriculture had this breach, and it's kind of rolled back on us to figure out."

TDA Communications Director Mark Loeffler maintains that all affected districts were notified, though some email notifications may have been delivered into spam or trash folders.

The agency recommends that affected students and their families contact the three major credit bureaus and activate fraud alerts, although TDA is not offering to pay for the monitoring service—as other agencies have done following data breaches.

TDA says that these are the 33 school districts impacted by the breach: Alba-Golden; Alvarado; Argyle; Big Sandy-Dallardsville; Boles; Boyd; Central; Cleburne; Corsicana; Crowley; Ennis; Etoile; Gilmer; Gladewater; Gunter; Harleton; Karnack; Keene; Kennedale; Krum; Lake Dallas; Melissa; Neches; New Diana; Ore City; Paradise; Pilot Point; Ponder; Princeton; Slidell; Terrell; Union Grove and Union Hill.

That didn’t take long…

After almost immediate pushback from community leaders and parents, the Austin school district is backing down on its plan to shutter and consolidate up to six low-enrollment elementary campuses by next August.

Since the timelines were made public last week, the district has been criticized for not giving the targeted campuses more time or resources to help boost enrollment, and for betraying the trust of the community after announcing the proposed school closing plan just days after Austin voters approved a $1.1 billion bond package, the largest in Central Texas history.

Superintendent Paul Cruz called it all a misunderstanding.  

“I realize the excitement and eagerness to get to work, coupled with aggressive project timelines, have created misunderstandings about the future of some of our schools and the process for parent and community engagement,” Superintendent Cruz said. “I accept responsibility, and I apologize for the confusion.”

The only place better than Happy to be a school superintendent…

After serving as a superintendent for 15 years, and working in public education for 34 years, Utopia superintendent John Walts says it’s time to retire.

“My patience has worn a little thin,” said Superintendent Walts, who previously was a vocational agriculture teacher and a principal in Utopia before returning to the community as superintendent in 2003. “I’m calling it quits.”

Superintendent Walts says he’ll be available to help his successor transition into the job, but he expects to leave Utopia when the school year ends in May.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.