UnifiEd launches campaign to increase school funding

UnifiEd launches campaign to increase school funding

April 11th, 2017 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 8/3/16. Jonas Barriere speaks about taking over for Elizabeth Crews as executive director of UnifiEd and what his plans are for the organization.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

UnifiEd is launching a campaign to increase funding for public education as Hamilton County is drafting its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

"We are doing this because the public asked us to," said Jonas Barriere, executive director of the education advocacy nonprofit organization.

Teachers, students and parents frequently voice concerns and complaints to UnifiEd that are often rooted in a lack of funding, Barriere said. So UnifiEd plans to spend coming weeks educating the community about the Hamilton County Schools budget and encouraging people to advocate on the topic.

POLL: Do you favor a tax increase to support Hamilton County Schools?

The Hamilton County Commission holds the school district's purse strings, and it hasn't increased taxes for schools in 12 years. The body will begin budget workshops with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger in the coming weeks, as the fiscal year 2018 budget goes into effect July 1.

The school district's base revenue for fiscal year 2018 is estimated at $368.8 million, which is more than half of the county's total budget.

Barriere said education should be the county's No. 1 funding priority, and it's up to the county to find the additional revenue needed for schools.

UnifiEd also is urging the Hamilton County Commission and the Hamilton County Board of Education to work together to find efficiencies in both budgets. It also wants the school board to start tying the budget to outcomes and forecasting budgets five years ahead.

Tiffanie Robinson, chairwoman of the school board's finance committee, has been urging the school district to do those things for weeks, and said Monday there is no excuse for that not happening.

"The public wants something that we all want," Robinson said. "We all want better use of our funds and more strategic budgeting."

Robinson added that increased revenue for schools is needed and she looks forward to learning more about UnifiEd's campaign.

Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said the budget he'll present to the board for approval on April 20 will ask for increased funding, and he appreciates UnifiEd's support.

Kelly's staff previously presented a budget to the school board asking for more than $32 million in additional revenue, which likely would require a tax increase to fund. The district is expecting about $7 million in new money in fiscal 2018, but nearly half that is needed to cover about a dozen new positions and the cost of annual step-pay increases.

All of the requested increases in the budget are tied to the district's strategic goals to boost achievement, engage students and improve attendance, Kelly said. The budget proposes funding to start an assistant principal academy, hire five art teachers and 15 literacy teachers, and update technology in schools, among many other things. It also seeks $1.5 million to support the district's lowest-performing schools, since more than $10 million in federal grants it had been receiving for those schools have ended.

Last year the school board approved a budget asking for about $24 million in increased funding. The county eventually asked the board to provide a balanced budget.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@times freepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.