How much will new retirement health benefits for Utica teachers cost taxpayers?

The Utica City School District refuses to say.

In 2008, the district approved a teacher’s contract that added retirement health benefits not seen in the district for 30 years. Officials said at the time they had no estimate of the added costs.

Now, they have such an estimate worked out on a government-required accounting form. But officials said this week they would not release the form and its details to the Observer-Dispatch.

The reason cited: The district is in contract talks with other unions,

“Releasing the report could have an impact on current negotiations,” Superintendent James Willis said. “The average Joe may look at that and say ‘those are way too expensive.’ The perception of the public could be such that they put a demand on board members concerning current negotiations. But they don’t understand that for everything we give, there’s a take.”

Lise Bang-Jensen, senior policy analyst for the Empire Center for Public Policy, said that explanation does not make sense.

“This is a public document and should be made available,” she said. “Shouldn’t the public know how much their children will be paying for teachers’ retirement? It’s the future generation of taxpayers who will be paying for teachers who have long been retired.”

The Utica Board of Education unanimously approved the teacher contract in September 2008 before any members of the public had a chance to see and review it. School administrators had resisted calls to make the contract public before the board vote.

District business official Maureen Albanese said the district is currently negotiating with the clerical union and Service Employees International Union, which represents teacher’s assistants and bus monitors, among others.

“We have two unions asking for health insurance and retirement benefits,” she said.

She said the form, which the Observer-Dispatch has sought in two Freedom of Information Law requests, is being used in those negotiations.

“When the negotiations are done and those contracts are settled, we will release the form,” she said.

The newspaper plans to appeal the denial of its FOIL request.

Bang-Jensen said the public has a right to see the information before contracts are ratified.

“These are very expensive benefits,” she said.

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