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School Board tries to nip and tuck cosmetic rider

The Buffalo School Board wants to trade facial peels for music teachers.

Following community outrage over the elimination of nearly half the district’s band and orchestra programs, the school board last week approved a measure to deny health insurance claims from teachers and administrators for superficial anti-wrinkle procedures and use the savings toward the restoration of music teachers.

“I’m voting to diminish the cosmetic benefit, which has actually been abused to such a degree that we can no longer afford our instrumental music program,” said board member John Licata, who sponsored the resolution.

The district paid out $1.1 million in claims for district employees who received anti-aging skin treatments like facial peels and microderm abrasions during the 2011-12 school year, Licata said. The district also paid nearly $590,000 for chemical peels to other parts of the body, he said.

In some cases, such procedures are used to reduce scarring or disfigurement, he said, but in many other cases, it’s being used to diminish wrinkles and even out skin tone to make employees look younger.

“I’m sorry,” Licata said. “Our societal love of youth doesn’t extend to depriving our students of an education.”

Not all teachers and administrators have or use the cosmetic health insurance rider. It is available in one of three health care plans the district offers.

But the employees who are using it are costing the district a lot of money and damaging its ability to lobby for more funding from the city, Licata said.

“When we ask the city for money, they throw it right back in our face and say, ‘What are you doing about the cosmetic rider?’ ” he said. “This is a lightning-rod issue.”

The school board unanimously approved Licata’s resolution Wednesday, though it’s unlikely such a resolution could be speedily enacted.

It would likely require legal vetting and conversations with the district’s health insurance administrator, BlueCross BlueShield. Though BlueCross administers the district’s cosmetic rider, all employee cosmetic claims are paid directly by the district, Licata said.

Meanwhile, Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore said the most appropriate place to eliminate the union’s cosmetic rider is through good-faith contract negotiations, not through unilateral action.

“I don’t think they can do that legally,” he said. “If they want to accomplish something like this, they should accomplish this at the bargaining table, instead of thumbing their nose at the contract.”

He also questioned Licata’s facial peel claims figures. “I’d like to know where he got those numbers from and see the documentation,” he said, adding that district’s administrators union has the same cosmetic rider.

Licata said that given the inability for the district to settle the contract with the BTF over the last 10 years, he’s not holding out much hope that the two sides can reach an agreement in time to reallocate money for student programs next year.

He said the district should target “all temporary cosmetic procedures” that are not considered medically necessary or part of a primary medical condition.

He later said the cosmetic rider refers to cosmetic surgery that is “required and necessary,” as determined by the insured’s physician and wants a board committee to investigate that language and shepherd the resolution to reality.

Meanwhile, protests over instrumental music cuts continue. The program cuts will be a major issue for the new school board, which will hold its annual reorganization meeting Monday as new members Carl Paladino, Theresa Harris-Tigg and James Sampson join the board.

Of the 28 existing instrumental music programs in the district, 14 are being threatened with elimination as a result of the district’s move to a new school-based budgeting system that gives principals more discretion over their own staffing levels.

District music teachers estimate 1,300 students will lose instrumental music if cuts are not restored. Several other schools would see music reductions.

Superintendent Pamela Brown said the district has been seeking community assistance in restoring the instrumental music teaching positions.

“We are continuing that effort to see if we can pull together the funding for this year to restore those positions,” she said, “and hopefully, we will be able to do that. But obviously tonight, we can’t guarantee it, but we are continuing to work toward that.”

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