BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – If the Benton Harbor school board votes to hire a private company to take over busing, the main reason will be the cost of union-affiliated health insurance, the school superintendent told the Benton Harbor Herald Palladium.

Superintendent Carole Schmidt said that the district’s bus drivers, monitors and mechanics have refused to give up the Michigan Education Special Services Association insurance plan, but that the district cannot afford the premiums, the Herald Palladium reported. The groups have been in contract talks for several years.

MESSA, a third-party insurance administrator affiliated with the Michigan Education Association, sells Blue Cross Blue Shield insurance plans to a majority of Michigan schools.

Transportation workers and other support staff members are expected to picket outside Benton Harbor High School on Tuesday, shortly before the school board takes up the question of whether to hire First Student Inc. to provide busing, the Herald Palladium reported. Michigan Education Association President Iris Salters is expected to attend.

There are approximately 140 workers in the support staff union, which also includes custodial, security and other employees, according to the Herald Palladium. Rulesha Payne, an MEA Uniserv director who represents the union at the bargaining table, told the Herald Palladium that members have offered to take a pay freeze and reduced MESSA benefits.

Schmidt said the MESSA premiums are too costly at any benefit level, according to the Herald Palladium. The district’s current budget is $7 million over revenue.

Benton Harbor Herald Palladium, “Privatization vote may come Tuesday,” May 10, 2009

Michigan Education Report, “Health insurance: Reformed, but not resolved,” Sept. 16, 2008