Mike Brake | February 6, 2019

Teacher-turned-senator offers bill to provide liability insurance for school employees

Mike Brake

An Oklahoma state senator who is also a former teacher wants to create a system of taxpayer-funded liability insurance to protect educators from lawsuits.

Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair) has introduced Senate Bill 750, which would create a system much like one in Florida that provides liability insurance for all state teachers at no cost to them or the districts that employ them. Bergstrom taught at Bluejacket Public Schools before his election to the Legislature.

The Florida Educators Professional Liability Insurance Program is operated through the state education agency in cooperation with a private vendor. All school staff members engaged in instructional work are automatically covered. There is a coverage limit of $3 million per occurrence, and liability coverage can be primary or secondary if a teacher is already covered by a private or district-provided liability program.

“It is one more way that we in the Legislature can demonstrate to our educators how much we value them and want to keep them in our schools.” —State Sen. Micheal Bergstrom (R-Adair)

“The purpose of this bill is to provide protection to our teachers from lawsuits,” Bergstrom said. “It is one more way that we in the Legislature can demonstrate to our educators how much we value them and want to keep them in our schools.”

Bergstrom noted that many teachers already purchase liability coverage. “My bill, by creating a massive insurance pool, will significantly reduce the cost of insurance for each teacher to the point that it is a benefit the state can provide. As a former classroom teacher, I understand the value of this. It will be one thing teachers will no longer have to be concerned about.”

Bergstrom said he has been told that Florida’s program costs the state about $3.50 per year per covered teacher. He said Oklahoma would have a smaller insured pool which would raise costs marginally, but he said he is awaiting final fiscal impact numbers on his bill.

In fact, data from Florida shows the cost may be even more economical. Audrey Walden, speaking for the Florida Department of Education, said “premiums paid annually have decreased each year since the inception of the program.” “For the period of 8-17-18 through 8-17-19, the premium is $616,434,” or $3.07 per instructional full-time employee (FTE), she said. For 2019-20, the cost will be $585,612, or $2.91 per FTE.

Walden said the state education department is also responsible for a $50,000 deductible per claim, but that there have been no successful claims since the program began in 2001. It was suspended for some years and then re-enacted by Florida legislators for the 2015-16 fiscal year. In those years, there have been just two formal claims, both of which were closed with no payout.

Like other professionals—including physicians, lawyers, and accountants—teachers can be targeted by lawsuits from disgruntled patrons. A recent article in Education World cited a Harris survey showing that 82 percent of teachers and 77 percent of principals have changed how they do their jobs because of a fear of lawsuits.

A Google search for “suing school districts” turns up pages of ads from lawyers soliciting clients for lawsuits over things like how students are disciplined, which classes they are placed in, and even sexual harassment. News reports tell of schools and teachers being sued over teen girls being cut from cheerleading squads as well as claims that students were discriminated against in grading.

Mike Brake

Independent Journalist

Mike Brake is a journalist and writer who recently authored a centennial history of Putnam City Schools. A former reporter at The Oklahoman (his coverage of the moon landing earned a front-page byline on July 21, 1969), he served as chief writer for Gov. Frank Keating and for Lt. Gov. and Congresswoman Mary Fallin. He has also served as an adjunct instructor at OSU-OKC, and currently serves as public information officer for Oklahoma County Commissioner Brian Maughan.

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