A bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers and public education organizations Wednesday unveiled a proposal to invest $60 million in a statewide health insurance trust for Montana’s K-12 schools.

During an event hosted in the Capitol Rotunda, supporters pitched the measure as a significant step toward reducing the financial burden school districts and employees face in securing health care coverage, which education advocates point to as a major contributor to Montana’s teacher recruitment and retention challenges. Sen. Edie McClafferty, D-Butte and vice chair of the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee, said the bill is the culmination of years of work among lawmakers and educators and will have “direct impacts for my fellow teachers and school staff across the state by lowering health insurance costs.” 

“This is a good bipartisan bill, and we’ve tried to meet the needs of school districts and their employees,” McClafferty told Montana Free Press Wednesday.

McClafferty’s assessment was echoed by the committee’s chair, Sen. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, as well as by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and the bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton. Leaders from five of the state’s education organizations, known collectively as the Coalition of Advocates for Montana’s Public Schools, said the proposal would relieve financial pressure on schools, bolster districts’ ability to attract new hires and “produce healthier, happier employees.” Montana School Boards Association Executive Director Lance Melton also noted that the proposal “honors local control” by allowing elected boards and school officials to “work together to stabilize insurance rates and control costs.”

“This bill addresses the growing problem Montana’s public schools face in managing the rising costs of health insurance,” Shelley Turner, executive director of the Montana Association of School Business Officials, said in a written statement. “Being able to provide stable and affordable coverage is essential to the recruitment and retention of a highly skilled workforce required to educate the students of Montana.”

Wednesday’s introduction of the proposal, which does not yet have a bill title, also received a positive reception from the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union representing the bulk of public school employees across the state.

“This is the most meaningful proposal so far to tackle teacher retention and recruitment. MFPE members are glad to see this Legislature propose real solutions and we finally feel heard on this issue today.”

MFPE President Amanda Curtis 

“This is the most meaningful proposal so far to tackle teacher retention and recruitment,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis said via text Wednesday. “MFPE members are glad to see this Legislature propose real solutions and we finally feel heard on this issue today.”

If passed, the measure would enable Montana’s superintendent of public instruction to qualify a health insurance trust if an agreement is established among at least 150 school districts that collectively employ a minimum of 12,000 employees. The trust must be self-funded and would be set up using $60 million in one-time-only funding from the state, $20 million of which will only be accessible if the trust is operating by June 30, 2025. The proposal also outlines how districts can withdraw from the trust and calls for the dissolution of the trust if it fails to comply with required conditions for three consecutive years.

In announcing the proposal, Bedey spoke to the potential impacts of the trust, not just for school employees and officials but for district budgets, as well.

“As a former school board trustee, I know salaries and benefits are a significant portion of school district general funds,” Bedey said. “Participating in the school health insurance trust will result in the reduction of costs associated with employee benefits and alleviate the financial strain on general fund budgets.”

Over the past year, Curtis and the other education advocates have routinely referenced health insurance rates as a prime candidate for state policy aimed at addressing school staffing shortages. Lawmakers took a crack at another key area of concern in 2021 by passing the Teach Act, which created financial incentives for schools to raise their starting teacher wages, and may look to increase funding for that initiative this session. Another proposal targeting the state’s teacher shortage — House Bill 117 — would create greater flexibility for retired teachers to fill vacant classroom positions without risking their pension benefits. HB 117 passed the House on an 85-15 vote Jan. 25, and now heads to the Senate for consideration.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...