The Anne Arundel County Board of Education voted last week to extend a contract with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield after employees objected to a another health care plan proposed by the school district.

The school board's unanimous decision to reject bids from other health care providers followed a new recommendation by Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who said that the CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield contract should be extended for another year while the district continues negotiations with employees over health care options. Smith had first recommended earlier this summer that the school board award a five-year contract to UnitedHealthcare.

The school board's vote came as several hundred school employees -- some clad in blue and holding signs that read "Keep Your Promise" -- crowded the school system's Annapolis headquarters in protest of the UnitedHealthcare proposal.

"This is a tremendous outpouring of support," said Pat Forester, Maryland State Teachers Association president. "The school board can see how much emotion there is behind it."

The four unions that represent Anne Arundel school employees said that health care changes must first be negotiated with workers.

Opponents of Smith's initial recommendation to go with UnitedHealthcare expressed concerns that the proposed health insurance plan would be more limited.

"It would change the coverage," said James Sollers, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "A lot of doctors don't accept the company."

Sheila Finlayson, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County, accused the school board of trying to weaken the unions and the negotiation process by introducing a new health care plan without the consent of employees.

"The foundation in our school system is being built on intimidation, fear and control . . . weakening the unions and taking away the voice," Finlayson said to the school board. "That is not going to happen."

Thomas P. Barbera, president of UnitedHealthcare of the Mid-Atlantic, said the school board has a legal obligation to award the contract to the winning bidder.

"We made the best bid, and we should get the contract," he said to the board. "We will see you at the courthouse."

Although he voted in favor of continuing with CareFirst, board member Eugene Peterson said a contract with UnitedHealthcare would have helped to minimize health care costs.

"Health care costs are the single most inflationary cost in America," he said. "I think we're losing a year of cost savings, and costs are going up. My question is, where's the money going to come from?"

But blue-clad Jane Anders, an Anne Arundel elementary schoolteacher for 32 years, said CareFirst gave her "phenomenal" coverage when she went through cancer treatment. She said UnitedHealthcare would not have allowed her to get the second and third opinions that she sought under CareFirst.

"You get what you pay for," she said of United. "I know that BlueCross BlueShield covers my needs."