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The Niagara-Wheatfield School District is looking into becoming self-insured for workers' compensation.

The district would give notice to its current insurer, the Niagara County Self-Insurance plan, and go with its own plan, administered by a consultant.

Many of Niagara County's municipalities already have pulled out of the county program. Some that have left this year include Niagara Falls, the Town of Niagara, North Tonawanda and Wheatfield.

Kerin Dumphrey, business executive of Niagara-Wheatfield Central Schools, said the move could prove self-supporting.

"After about five years of budgeting payments, it's possible that we would build up enough funds to pay for the plan in interest earned," he said.

The School Board last week authorized Dumphrey to hire Self-Funding Inc., a Williamsville consulting firm, to study establishing a private insurance system. For up to $20,000, the firm would negotiate a buyout price with the county and set up managerial services. The district has until Monday to tell the county it will be leaving Dec. 31.

Dumphrey said he hoped the district would be able to leave without paying a buyout price.

"The only way to avoid paying a buyout is by taking all our liability with us," he said. "We would have to assume all responsibility for the open cases we have."

If all the district's compensation cases remained open and the employees never returned to work, the cost would exceed $1.7 million, he said. The payments would only cost the district $100,000 to $200,000 a year once self-insured, he said.

Premiums with the county were $430,000 this year and are expected to be $398,000 next year.

"We're a 40-year member of the county plan," Dumphrey explained. "We're one of the founding members. Now that Niagara Falls is out, we would be the largest."

Premiums are calculated according to the number of employees enrolled in the system, and Niagara-Wheatfield covers about 600. Unlike some members, Niagara-Wheatfield has its own transportation fleet whose workers add to the number of jobs that are physically active and more prone to become injured, he said.

"We're like a monster compared to the others. We have bus drivers, substitutes, etc. . . . So the number of cases we have is over the average," he said.

By investing $500,000 a year in its own plan, the district would be able to pay out benefits, pay a manager and bank about $300,000.

"This will save the district money in the long run and benefit the employees," said School Board President Maureen Kause.

Dumphrey said there are other issues involved with the county that don't have a price tag.

"It's very difficult to go through a third party to get your hands on carriers and people who are supposed to be policing these claims," he said. "Sometimes there is abuse in the system, but how can you control it when there's an unresponsive third party?"

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