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  • Last modified 219 days ago (April 20, 2017)

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Healthy and wealthy, but wise?

This week we have two examples of how mixing health care and government officials can lead to questionable decisions.

We could take county commissioners to task for how they reached a decision on health insurance for employees and then reversed themselves when apparent loser Blue Cross/Blue Shield came back from the dead to retain their contract. We’ll just leave our critique at this: It wouldn’t have happened like this with a capable county administrator.

But instead, there’s the matter of Marion-Florence school board and the health insurance premiums that they’re going to pay for outgoing superintendent Lee Leiker, perhaps until he turns 65. Frankly, we missed this when it happened in March, and we shouldn’t have. This one’s important, and let’s be clear: the issue here is the board of education and not Leiker.

Their desire to do something special to acknowledge Leiker’s contributions over the past 13 years is understandable. That they would consider something with monetary value makes sense in light of Leiker voluntarily $5,000 pay cut and the fact that inflation has more than canceled out the raises he received.

But the members of the board weren’t elected to be the Lee Leiker Fan Club, no matter how much respect he’s earned, including mine.

In a time when the legislature still hasn’t decided what funding the district will have next year, taxpayers deserved a more businesslike approach to this decision from the board they elected to be responsible for the education of our children.

One of Leiker’s strongest contributions to the district has been his analysis of the impact of various options for handling the budget, and the district has weathered the recent financial crisis better than most others its size as a result. It’s a puzzle to see that the board doesn’t appear to have used the same approach.

This wasn’t about a monthly payment; it was about a 10-year commitment, one they’re banking on ending much sooner than that if and when Leiker gets other coverage, and there’s a reasonable chance he will. Board president Jeremiah Lange conceded they didn’t look at an estimate of potential total cost. They wanted to do something nice for Lee.

Let’s say this situation lasts just a year, and costs the district just upward of $5,000. Wouldn’t some of you like to know what the district gave up for that?

Given my past experience in managing budgets larger than that of USD 408, I have little doubt I could find that much without affecting services one bit. I once cut $80,000 out of an education budget while improving program quality and giving staff a raise at the same time. But people still wanted to know how I did it.

That the district pays insurance premiums for other employees who have left is misguided at best, a red herring at its worst. Former employees who accepted board-initiated incentives intended to lower the district’s overall cost of doing business, and who make their own payments to make up what the board doesn’t cover isn’t at all the same as a lovely parting gift.

Without a businesslike rationale, the board has set a precedent to recognize the contributions of other district employees when they resign or retire before 65. Are the contributions of a 13-year administrator more deserving than those of a 25-year teacher, for example? If that situation presents itself, what’s the answer?

I suspect a good number of folks will say I’m making much ado about nothing, and from a money standpoint, they could be right. This arrangement could cost the district very little, depending on what direction Leiker eventually goes.

However, my beef isn’t so much with dollars and cents; if 10 years from now the district has ended up shelling out $60,000 for this, I don’t expect to be around to comment on it.

My concern is the same one county commissioners have read more than once in this column: When doing anything that deviates from established practice, determine the short and long-term implications and be sure you’re using rationale that is thoughtful, prudent, defensible, and applicable to similar situations that might arise.

Those in government take on great responsibility for putting everyone else’s money to good use. Decisions that appear simple, good, and straightforward in the moment may have lasting implications that create problems down the road. A thoughtful, businesslike approach to everything can help to avoid those, and keep our taxpayer-funded entities healthy for the long haul.

— david colburn

Last modified April 20, 2017

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