Ohio County Schools May Join Suit

WHEELING – Ohio County Board of Education members will decide Monday whether to join 49 of West Virginia’s 55 school districts in a lawsuit over health care benefits for retirees.

Since 2006, school boards have had to record in their accounting books the amount of “other post-employment benefits” (OPEB) owed to their retirees. The figure primarily pertains to retirement health care and life insurance benefits.

The move will, in essence, transfer such obligations from the state to county school districts, school officials fear. And even if the debt exists only on paper, it still will hurt them when they attempt to issue low-interest financing bonds, they believe.

In Ohio County, recorded OPEB costs will be about $700,000 this year, according to Superintendent George Krelis. That figure will jump to $4.4 million in 2010, and will continue to increase.

On Friday, Ohio County Board of Education members invited local and state lawmakers to join them for a special meeting to provide information about state officials’ plans for dealing with OPEB during the upcoming legislative session.

The West Virginia Legislature returns to Charleston on Jan. 13.

Among those present were state Sens. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel; Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; and Jack Yost, D-Brooke; as well as Delegates Orphy Klempa and Tal Hutchins, both D-Ohio.

Edgell is a member of the Senate Finance Committee that last month rejected a proposal to allow school boards and other government employers to pay just what they owe their current retirees in OPEB costs this budget year. Committee members had thought a long-term solution was needed instead.

“The feeling was all we were doing was postponing the inevitable for another year,” Edgell said. “We thought we would be better off if we just let it go straight to the Supreme Court. We didn’t make that argument publicly … and say sue us. It’s going to be resolved, and everybody believes the state will be held responsible – that we created the problem.”

Edgell is a retired school teacher.

He said that what led to a liability in retired teachers’ health care benefits was that retiring teachers were allowed to purchase months of free care with their remaining, unused sick days. They could buy one month of free health care for every three days they had remaining.

Edgell said when he retired, he had 300 sick days, and this equaled 100 months of free health care.

Kessler told the board the state Legislature should take “a wait and see posture” as Congress tackles the national health care issues.

Many of the state’s retired teachers are in their 50s, he noted. If a national care provider would drop the minimum coverage age, these teachers would be eligible for the national health plan.

“They would be removed off our books,” he said. “They may completely be shifted from our responsibility to the federal government.”