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Editorial: Healthy Teachers' Contract

The Pittsburgh Board of Public Education's long struggle to contain spiraling benefits costs recently got a big assist from what some would consider an unlikely source: the city teachers union.

A 2 1/2-year agreement reached between the school district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and approved by its membership will result in a savings of millions of dollars in health care costs. That savings in turn should help the district avoid future deficits in its operating budget.

There was a willingness on both sides to face up to the financial difficulties confronting the system, and the determination to make painful choices. Under the agreement, teachers will be able to keep their current coverage with Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and do so at a cost to the district that will be $15 million less than officials had anticipated.

How did that happen? After accepting the idea that something had to be done about health care costs, the federation agreed, if necessary, to consider changing their insurer from Highmark to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. It supported the district's efforts to be aggressive in its proposals to both insurers. When UPMC responded in kind with a bid that would dramatically reduce health care costs, it forced Highmark to be equally competitive.

The result: Highmark reduced its three-year proposal to a less than 1 percent increase for 2001 and rate caps of about 7 percent for years 2002 and 2003, producing a $15 million reduction in expected costs. Moreover, city teachers won't have to deal with the inconvenience that often accompanies a change in health insurers.

There are other positive aspects to the contract. The union agreed that principals at 20 to 25 schools would play a role in recommending teacher transfers. That change is in keeping with the current nationwide emphasis on strong principals. The union also agreed to allow school officials to adjust the starting times of high schools, allowing bus companies more flexibility and creating the possibility of additional savings for the district.

As important as any specific feature of the new contract is the spirit of cooperation that produced it. This process is a model for future negotiations - and not only in Pittsburgh.

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