“We are giving teachers and principals pennies to run the schools."”
There was an air of a religious revival Tuesday night as Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith gave a roughly 90-minute speech at Wallace A. Smith Elementary School in Ooltewah to call for a $34 million boost to the school district's annual budget.
A student choir sang "Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel?" during a musical assembly on the gymnasium's stage before the talk began. Then, like a fired-up preacher, Smith took off his business suit jacket partway through his talk. Later, he set down his microphone and spoke directly to the roughly 125 people in metal folding chairs who surrounded him on three sides.
"I didn't come here to preach taxes," Smith said toward the end of his unscripted, wide-ranging speech, which was the third of 11 community talks he will give before the Hamilton County Commission votes in May on whether to bring the school district's budget from $345 million to $379 million. The school board will vote on Smith's budget proposal Thursday, but the commission gets the final say.
"I'm going to give you the facts," Smith told Tuesday's audience.
Rick Smith's Top 10 requested enhancements for schools:
1. 5 percent salary increase to recruit and retain high-performing teachers
2. Education technology support personnel
3. Art teachers in every elementary school
4. Foreign language teachers in every elementary school
5. Instructional resources and support
6. Increase options for students to graduate, including adult and virtual high school
7. Additional block grant funds sent directly to schools
8. Resources and equipment to open new schools
9. Increased funds for capital maintenance and repairs
10. Additional materials, personnel, after-school programs and other resources for urban schools
Funding the $34 million increase would require a 40-cent property tax increase, costing about $150 annually for those who own a $150,000 home.
But Smith didn't pull any punches as he drew a picture of the gulf between the 43,000-student school district's current finances and what it needs to reach his vision for what he's calling "Chattanooga 2.0: The smartest city in the South."
The $1.6 million the district spends annually on instructional supplies?
"We are giving teachers and principals pennies to run the schools," Smith said. "They can't even buy paper, folks."
The $1.5 million budgeted each year for building and maintenance and repair?
"Another embarrassment," Smith said. "We're holding ... the school system together with tape and glue. We don't paint schools. Some of our schools, I'm embarrassed to go by."
Securing the proposed tax increase may be uphill battle for Smith. A majority of the nine county commissioners already have said they are against increasing the school district's budget.
In making his case for a tax increase, Smith, 62, drew on his history as a lifelong Hamilton County resident. He talked about how his father was able to work his way up into management for a Chattanooga trucking company with a high school diploma. But a high school diploma is not enough education in today's economy, he said.
Only about one-third of Hamilton County's residents have a credential above a high school diploma, said Smith.
"Folks, it's not 1960 anymore," he said.
Meanwhile, new businesses such as Volkswagen have flocked to Chattanooga. And more are on their way, he said, citing the city's new "Innovation District" downtown near City Hall.
"A lot of interesting things are going to happen in Chattanooga," Smith said. "They're going to take Chattanooga to a different place."
These new employers look for a good public education system, said Smith, who wants art and foreign languages offered in all the district's elementary schools, not just a few in wealthier areas where parents step forward to fund it.
"Go ahead and look at what art does for brain development," he said, encouraging audience members to Google research which he said will back that up.
He also called for pre-kindergarten education and more support for urban schools where students who face "intense poverty" show up for kindergarten with a 400-word vocabulary, compared to 4,000 words for children from middle-class homes.
Improving teacher pay by 5 percent to recruit and retain high-performing teachers is the first of the "top 10" enhancements Smith is calling for.
Hamilton County is Tennessee's third-wealthiest county, he said, but it ranks 34th in teachers' pay.
Better pay coupled with such things as Chattanooga's climate, increasing vibrancy and outdoors attractions, Smith said, should make it attractive to good teachers.
"If you're a teacher, this is the place to come and work," he said. "We've got everything that people look for. We just don't promote it."
About a dozen audience members spoke up with questions and concerns and most seemed to be in support of increased funding for schools.
Audience member Dean Morehouse praised Smith for his talk, but said a wheel tax would be a better way to fund schools than a property tax.
"I'm probably the toughest sale in the building when it comes to property tax," Morehouse told the audience after Smith called him to the front of the room to speak. Still, Morehouse acknowledged, "It's time to do something."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.