ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY PATRICK DENNS -- Louisiana School Boards Association Executive Director Scott Richard speaks at the Press Club of Baton Rouge in this October 2013 Advocate file photo.

Louisiana public school superintendents are having to scramble for substitute teachers or offer costly health insurance to part-time workers because of the Affordable Care Act.

“It absolutely is an issue,” said Patricia Pujol, superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system and former president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

Worries about running afoul of the Affordable Care Act — also known as “Obamacare” — have forced officials in Ascension Parish to turn the hunt for substitute teachers to a staffing agency to track hours and avoid federal penalties.

Michael Faulk, superintendent of the Central school system, said his district is trying to find new substitutes and he plans to push for legislation next year to increase their ranks.

The Lincoln Parish school district in northeast Louisiana has trimmed weekly hours for 400 substitute teachers and other part-time workers to 28 — two below the cutoff number — and boosted the minimum wage by $2 per hour, to $10.50, because of of the federal health insurance law. The change applies to 400 substitute teachers, maintenance workers, food service employees and paraprofessionals, George Murphy, business manager for the district, said in an email response to questions.

“This is really, really a major concern,” said Scott Richard, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

The uproar in education circles, as well as other industries nationwide, stems from a part of the law that requires employers to offer health insurance coverage to part-time workers who are employed 30 hours or more per week, or face federal fines of up to $2,000 per person.

Superintendents said such coverage is a huge expense for school districts still reeling from five years of a near freeze in state aid for public schools.

“Given the cost of benefits, that would be an unbelievable drain on school systems,” Pujol said.

Finding top-flight substitute teachers is an age-old problem, and they are generally paid about $60 or $80 per day, depending on whether they have a college degree.

Pujol said her district opted to turn the issue over to Kelly Services, a staffing agency that has systems in place that track hours worked by temporary teachers.

Faulk said the juggling act between filling classes and limiting substitute teachers to less than 30 hours per week has forced full-time teachers into classrooms during their off periods.

He said that, because of the 2010 federal law, the pool of 60 or 70 fill-in teachers is not enough. “If we don’t get some substitutes, it is going to hit us,” Faulk said.

Faulk said he plans to ask the Legislature next year to change a recent state law that prohibits retirees from making more than 25 percent of their retirement income or face major penalties.

“We want to see about trying to get that to 50 percent,” he said. “It gives them more opportunity to work and supplement their retirement income.”

Wesley Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school district, said good substitute teachers are already hard to find.

“If you are going to cut hours in what you can offer them, that is going to make the pool smaller,” Watts said.

Scott Devillier, superintendent of the top-rated Zachary school system, said the 30-hour limit on part-time workers adds another layer of uncertainty to already worrisome health care costs.

“Each year you just don’t know,” Devillier said.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish school district, said requiring health insurance coverage for employees who work 30 or more hours per week is forcing officials to act.

“We are grappling with how are we going to set up a system to track this,” said Voitier, who also is president of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

“And then you have to make sure on your tracking system that you have safeguards in place so that seasonal or part-time people are not exceeding the number of allowable hours,” she said.

The same issue surfaced during a recent meeting of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board.

Some board members complained the 30-hour limit was causing problems on Thursdays and Fridays after substitute teachers reached their limit.

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