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Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith earned a $25,000 raise on Thursday, a move that prompted continual comparison between the superintendent's pay and that of teachers.
Board members voted 5-3 on a four-year contract worth $190,000 annually -- more than five times the county's starting teacher salary. Greg Martin, Rhonda Thurman and Jeffrey Wilson cast the dissenting votes, though all maintained their support for the superintendent. Some board members were weary of giving Smith such a pay boost when it's unclear whether they'll be able to offer a substantial raise for teachers.
And in this economy, a raise of $25,000 is a tough sell for taxpayers and teachers, said board member Greg Martin, who described the amount as a "lottery winner" size.
"For some people in our community $25,000 is what they make a year," he said.
But the majority of board members said Smith had proven himself since his rise to the system's highest office two years ago and had earned the extra pay.
"Excellence should be rewarded," said board member Joe Galloway. "That's the same reason we need to pay our teachers more."
Board Chairman Mike Evatt said the superintendent has boosted employee morale, built relationships with community and business leaders and had made accomplishments like launching the STEM School Chattanooga and receiving the $10 million iZone grant from the state.
But Rhonda Thurman said his performance shouldn't come as a surprise, or necessarily call for a pay raise. That's what they hired him for, she said.
"I'm not surprised by it," Thurman said. "I don't think he needs to be patted on the back for it. I knew he was capable. And I knew he could do it."
Board member Jeffrey Wilson said his vote wasn't a referendum on Smith's performance, but more a hesitation of doing something for the superintendent that the board couldn't do for teachers.
"I'm trying to vote for it, but I'm having a hard time," he said. "I would be much more relieved if we left this room tonight with some kind of understanding that if we're going to do this for Mr. Smith, we're going to do the best that we can to get our employees something as well."
And that was a view held by most.
After the contract talk, board members tossed around the idea of offering teachers a 3 to 5 percent raise, which could cost the district between $6 million and $10 million annually, officials said. Administrators are in negotiations with the teachers union and discussing pay for next school year. Though no vote was taken, board members asked Smith to explore how much a raise would cost and where the funds would come from.
If such a raise were to happen, Smith said the school system would have to have additional revenues from the county -- a prospect Thurman thought was unlikely.
"Call me crazy, but where do we get this money?" she said.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.