Business Practices

Safer Schools

School districts near and far have sought ways to increase efficiency and stretch shrinking budgets. One popular method is to partner with several area school districts to increase collective purchasing power for services and products.

Those local educational service agencies (ESAs) enable districts to use their combined size for greater buying strength in purchasing high-quality school-focused programs at rates districts cannot negotiate on their own. More than 550 ESAs in the United States provide services for school districts, although they may be designated by different names. Districts in New York work with regional Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, and districts in Kansas participate in region-based education service centers. On the West Coast, districts partner with joint powers authorities. Regardless of what they are called, those groups work with their member school districts to determine what services the districts would like and then to negotiate as a consortium to reduce costs.

For example, Schools Insurance Group (SIG) is a joint powers authority in Auburn, California, that offers insurance programs to districts in its service region. The 34 district members have access to such programs as property liability insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, and employee benefits programs. In the past three years, SIG has developed its own medical provider network, employed a full-time return-to-work coordinator, hired a third-party workers’ compensation management firm to develop return-to-work plans for member districts beginning a critical claims review process, and recently incorporated an online risk management system to manage training, accidents, compliance tasks, and more.

Those programs were introduced to help the districts reduce their experience modification (EM) rate and, in turn, to reduce the workers’ compensation costs for the entire membership in the pool. The EM rate is based on an employer’s losses during the past three and a half years and its payroll history by job classification. Although several factors are considered in determining the EM rate, the two key components are frequency and severity: the number of incidents during that year and the seriousness of all injuries and the cost associated with them during that year. Both affect premiums.

The EM rate is one aspect of workers’ compensation insurance premiums where schools actually have some control, because as they improve their safety programs, there likely will be a reduction in injuries and related costs.

Creating a culture of health and safety

An important way to reduce injuries and risk is to understand where and when injuries occur and what causes them. By understanding those factors, districts can implement strategies to help improve safety in the schools. The most direct way to combat an increasing number of accidents and subsequent workers’ compensation claims — and ultimately district spending — is to ask, “How are those employees getting hurt?”

By analyzing the types of accidents employees have, the location, the time of day, the season, the types of clothing worn, the use of personal protective equipment, and even the type of occupation, trends become noticeable.

Although districts cannot change the impact of previous incidents, they can introduce programs and policies that improve health and safety and thereby reduce future risk. Consistent and relevant staff safety training can help employees avoid common injuries. For example, training all custodial and maintenance employees on proper lifting and ladder safety in late spring before they begin working on summer projects will get them thinking about how they should address specific situations.

SIG encourages its member districts to implement a variety of health and fitness campaigns. Those campaigns include engaging activities like onsite cooking classes and “Fitness Fridays,” when employees are encouraged to wear workout clothes and be active throughout the workday.

Districts can apply for SIG-sponsored district-based health and wellness grants for wellness activities involving school staff. And, SIG’s on-staff wellness coordinator works with member districts to provide customized wellness programs — an avenue for all employees to become healthier, which could help lower medical costs.

Saving costs within a district does not always have to mean cutting programs. Districts can promote activities to keep employees healthy, consistently provide relevant safety training, create an awareness of and ability to address safety hazards, and evaluate the cause of accidents to create preventative strategies to effectively reduce the number of staff accidents — which will lead to a safer school environment.

Excerpted from the April 2015 issue of School Business Affairs, published by ASBO International. www.asbointl.org.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Authors

Tom Strasburger is vice president of sales and marketing for PublicSchoolWORKS in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Bev Wilkinson is executive director of the School Insurance Group in Auburn, Calif.

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