Hamilton County school board members split on $33.5 million budget request

Hamilton County school board members split on $33.5 million budget request

April 19th, 2017 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

The Hamilton County Department of Education building is shown in this file photo.

At least two members of the Hamilton County Board of Education plan to vote against a budget asking for $33.5 million in additional revenue, and one plans to make a motion during Thursday's meeting requiring district administrators to prepare a balanced budget.

"There's no question that to be better, to do right by kids, that we need additional revenue," school board member Joe Smith said Tuesday. "But we need to do it the right way, and it is just my opinion that we haven't done that."

Related Article

Cooper: Convincing remains for school funders

Read more

Smith plans to make the motion and hopes board members will agree that Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly should present a balanced budget to Hamilton County, along with a list of the school district's needs and how additional revenue will be spent.

But some of the board's nine members say they plan to approve Kelly's budget, which asks the county for $33.5 million in new money to boost student outcomes.

School board members Kathy Lennon, Joe Galloway and David Testerman said Tuesday they plan to support Kelly's budget, as the district is in desperate need of more revenue.

Testerman said the "system is flawed" and the school board has no choice but to ask the county for more money, since it can't raise taxes to support schools.

"Many of the problems we have now we cannot fix," Testerman said. "... these things can only be changed by [more] funding."

It's estimated that the school district will receive about $9 million more than last year because of an increase in property and sales tax revenue, along with a boost in state funding. This places the district's base budget at $372 million, and means an additional $24.5 million is needed to fulfill the budget Kelly is proposing.

Hamilton County has not raised taxes for schools in 12 years.

Tiffanie Robinson, chairwoman of the school board's finance committee, said the school district absolutely needs more money, and because of that she will likely vote for Kelly's budget. However, she still may vote in favor of Smith's motion for a balanced budget, she added.

School board chairman Steve Highlander wouldn't say how he plans to vote.

"I'm still weighing things in the balances," he said Tuesday, adding that additional funding is needed.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones did not return a request for comment Tuesday, but is a loud advocate for increasing school funding. She has also previously voiced support of Kelly's budget.

Joe Wingate, a member of the school board, said he's glad the board has had so many conversations about the budget this year. It's also good that the County Commission will soon have the district's budget, so conversations about it can continue between the two elected bodies, he said.

Wingate didn't say how he planned to vote Thursday, noting that a lot could change before the meeting.

"I would like to see the budget proposed a little differently than how it has been," he added.

School board member Rhonda Thurman said she'll be voting against the budget because the district still refuses to start the budgeting process at zero and hasn't taken a critical look at where it spends money.

"These are things I was hoping we would tackle and we are not," Thurman said. " I know we are not going to get [additional funding.] It's ridiculous to take this budget to the County Commission."

Thurman noted that some of the line items in the $33.5 million of additional requests are things the state mandates the district to provide, like teachers for students learning English. Thurman said she doesn't understand why items like this are in the district's request and not the base budget.

Kelly presented the budget to the board last week, and said the additional $33.5 million will give teachers a 5 percent raise, provide new technology and post-secondary opportunities, and increase the number of literacy teachers at schools, among other things. He added that every line item in the request is tied to the district's strategic plan.

Smith said it's the board's job to tell the county where its needs are and where new revenue will be spent, but it's tasked with presenting a balanced budget.

"After five months, I think the school system is doing its best to be as efficient as possible," Smith said. "Still, who plans the budget at home for next year and then just adds 10 percent more hoping the money comes in?"

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