Hamilton County Schools administrators will meet with the school board on Thursday to provide an update and receive direction on teacher raises. Administrators plan to get back to negotiations with the teachers union within the next two weeks.
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It's all down to the dollars.
After months of negotiating, Hamilton County Schools officials and the local teachers union will finally put teacher salaries on the bargaining table.
The school board asked Superintendent Rick Smith in June to explore a 3 to 5 percent raise for teachers, after Smith got a $25,000 salary bump. Such a move was projected to cost between $6 million and $10 million annually. Now officials say negotiations with teachers are winding down, with only matters of salary and benefits left on the table.
"We are trying to wrap it up," Smith said.
Teachers look poised to receive some kind of raise -- the union and school officials agree it's needed. Now the only question is how much they'll get. The union asked for a 4 percent raise. Smith said he plans to talk to the school board in a closed session before the regular meeting Thursday.
"I think the teachers will see a raise, hopefully before the year's out," said school board Chairman Mike Evatt.
School leaders are looking for the cash within their own $393 million budget to pay for the raises. They aren't inclined to ask county commissioners for more money because recent comments from that body have indicated little sympathy to school budgeting woes.
"From my experience with the commission, I just don't think we're going to get any support from them," Evatt said.
Teachers have received raises of between 1 and 2.33 percent in three of the past five years. Generally, the state pays about a third of that and local money makes up the rest, officials said. Teacher base salaries range from about $35,000 to $61,000 annually, depending on years of experience and degrees attained.
But Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said those increases haven't kept up with the rising costs of health care. The Hamilton County school board raised premiums on dependent health care this year by $75 a month for teachers. For a teacher making $40,000, that hike would eat up nearly the entire raise given in 2013.
"They keep reducing the benefits," Hughes said. "They reduce benefits more than they give the teachers a raise."
County Commissioner Warren Mackey said he wants to see teachers get raises, but from the schools' budget, not county coffers. Mackey, who teaches history at Chattanooga State Community College, said teachers need more than just money. Teaching is getting tougher. Stakes are higher and students are coming in the door with many social and behavioral problems.
"Teachers continue to be overlooked and neglected, and we need them more than ever to give their best effort," Mackey said.
He pointed to Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's recent announcement of a 1.5 percent raise for all city employees, including police and fire employees, who were left out of last year's round of raises.
"The city mayor started giving consideration to the police force and the firemen -- and they do a great job," Mackey said. "But the teachers also do a great job. And nobody is paying attention to them. And they're putting all the problems on the teachers."
But Hughes said the county should pony up and school officials shouldn't be afraid to make their case to commissioners, who fund the countywide school system.
"We've got to have financial support. We can't just have people saying, 'Amen, our teachers need a raise,'" Hughes said. "And to me, the financial support is the responsibility of the County Commission. I don't understand the hesitancy of the district to ask the County Commission for desperately needed funding."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.