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Cutting back on benefits

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with children at Oak Bluffs in Martha's VineyardWASHINGTON — Hit by years of budget cuts, some US public school boards are looking to avoid providing health benefits to substitute teachers and supporting staff under President Barack Obama’s reform law, education officials say.

According to the law, employers will have to offer health coverage to all full-time employees, defined as those who work an average of 30 or more hours per week each month, or else pay a fine starting in 2015.

School boards, already struggling to manage after years of state budget cuts, are trying to get ahead of the potential costs of Obamacare for the current academic year, education and labour officials say. The need to find creative solutions, or risk cutting back staff hours further, will increase as they finalise their budgets, they say.

In Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District, Superintendent Mike Leichliter said there is no room in its constrained budget to provide additional employee insurance. Instead of cutting hours, the district used a substitute-teacher contracting service to pay part of the salaries for 95 employees. Money for such a service does not count against the school’s budget.

“When we looked at our costs, (healthcare) was one area that really had the potential to skyrocket,” Leichliter said. “This is absolutely the worst time for school districts to be faced with mandated increases.”

The National School Board Association said many states and school districts have at least explored reducing hours, according to Linda Embrey, a communications officer. Several school officials contacted by Reuters said they could not find a way around cuts.

In Indiana’s Fort Wayne Community Schools district, one of the state’s largest, administrators reduced hours for 610 of its 4,050 employees, including substitute teachers and support staff, who were working 30 or more hours a week. Providing them with health insurance would have cost $10 million annually, said Krista Stockman, public information officer for Fort Wayne. (Reuters)

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