After discussing a controversial employee bonus for the third time, the Hamilton County school board is ready to vote it up or down and move on.
"It's time we put it on the agenda and put it to rest," said Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Everett Fairchild.
The issue of whether to give all school system employees a one-time $400 or $500 bonus, paid for largely with leftover money from the federal Education Jobs Fund program, first surfaced in early December.
The school system also must use $327,500 from its general purpose budget to cover bonuses for nonclassroom personnel.
Since then, a vote has been twice postponed. After Monday night's work session, the bonuses will be added to the agenda for this month's board meeting on Feb. 10.
Tommy Kranz, the school system's chief financial officer, gave a presentation Monday on how Hamilton County could spend the remaining $2 million of federal grant money.
If not used for bonuses, the money could be used to make up a projected budget shortfall for fiscal year 2012 or to continue paying for stimulus-funded positions that otherwise must be eliminated at the end of this school year.
Balancing the budget with stimulus funds would make for a larger budget deficit in 2013, Kranz said.
"If the jobs bill goes toward balancing budget, some expenses come out, they're paid for with jobs bill money," he said. "But unless those jobs are eliminated, they come back in 2013, increasing the deficit. We're deferring or delaying it for one year, is what we're doing."
If the money is used to pay for stimulus-funded jobs for an extra year, those positions still must be eliminated in 2013 when the jobs bill money runs out, Kranz said.
Board member Joe Galloway, who voted against discussing the bonuses at the January meeting, said he had changed his mind and would likely vote for the bonuses.
"I'm leaning toward voting for [the bonus]," he said.
Many of the people in the temporary, stimulus-funded positions that will be eliminated will be given first priority when the system makes new hires, which Galloway said made him feel better.
But board member Rhonda Thurman, a staunch supporter of eliminating positions once their funding has gone away, said that this time it is important to keep the stimulus-funded positions around for at least one more year.
"Do you think that teachers would rather give themselves $500 rather than give their colleagues another year of work?" she asked. "I know they [school system employees] haven't had a raise in several years, but there are many people in Hamilton County who haven't had a job in several years."
Jennifer Woods, a teacher at Washington Alternative School who attended Monday's work session, called the meeting "disheartening."
"To imply that teachers are insensitive toward what's happening in the community ... there are a lot of teachers who are the only ones working in their family. While $500 isn't a lot, it's nice to be appreciated."
Board member Jeffrey Wilson said that, in a tough economy, there's always something else you could spend money on.
"At some point I think it comes down to whether you value people, and I think this token gesture would show that," he said.
Board member Mike Evatt, who initially called for Monday's work session, said he still thought he would vote against the bonus in favor of extending the employment of stimulus-funded classroom jobs.
"I'd like to see us keep people as long as we can," he said.
Kelli Gauthier covers K-12 education in Hamilton County for the Times Free Press. She started at the paper as an intern in 2006, crisscrossing the region writing feature stories from Pikeville, Tenn., to Lafayette, Ga. She also covered crime and courts before taking over the education beat in 2007. A native of Frederick, Md., Kelli came south to attend Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in print journalism. Before newspapers, ...