Hamilton County school board rejects Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly's budget

Hamilton County school board rejects Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly's budget

April 21st, 2017 by Kendi A. Rainwater in Local Regional News

Hamilton County Department of Education interim Superintendent, Kirk Kelly, right, says if he doesn't present the Hamilton County Commission with a request for an additional $33.5 million for local public schools, the county won't know the district needs it.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Board of Education agrees the district needs more funding, but voted against the budget proposed by Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly asking for $33.5 million in additional revenue.

Five board members voted Thursday night to table a vote on Kelly's proposed budget, and then six voted on a motion requiring Kelly to provide the board with a balanced budget and a list of the district's needs and how additional revenue will be spent to boost student outcomes.

School board member Joe Smith made the motion to table the vote on the proposed budget, and school board members Tiffanie Robinson, Rhonda Thurman, Joe Wingate and Steve Highlander agreed. School board member Joe Galloway voted along with the group on Smith's second motion asking Kelly for a balanced budget.

Smith said the Hamilton County Commission is aware of the school district's needs, and providing the county with a balanced budget and a list of those needs could prove an effective strategy for getting more funds.

"The County Commission needs to bite the bullet and go ahead and agree to a property tax increase, in my opinion," Smith said.

But, he added, the board also needs to show that it's responsible and respects the commission by providing a balanced budget, along with the prioritized list of the district's needs and how additional revenue would be spent.

Wingate said the district's problem for at least 10 years has been a lack of leadership, and it's time that the board prove it can be a good steward of funds.

"We have to show that we can balance a budget and take care of our house," he said. "It is well documented what our needs are."

Highlander said for two years the school district has presented a budget to the county asking for millions of dollars in additional funding, and the budget has been denied. He said the commission isn't likely to increase revenue for schools this year, but Smith's balanced-budget strategy is worth a try.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones disagreed with that strategy, and said kids in her district desperately need the things the additional $33.5 million in funding would provide and the board should include them in the budget.

The county commission hasn't raised taxes for schools in 12 years, she said, and it's time an investment is made in the district to make up for what hasn't been funded for more than a decade.

"There is all this juggling about and these are [kids'] lives," she said, adding that an entire group of students has been underserved.

School board member Kathy Lennon also voiced support for Kelly's budget, and said everything in it is needed and should be approved by the board.

Kelly is now expected to present a balanced budget along with the prioritized list of additional needs to the board Thursday. Once the board approves a budget, Kelly will give it to Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger.

After the meeting Thursday night, Coppinger told the Times Free Press that public education is the county's top priority. The school system already receives more funding than any other part of county government, he said, and provides more local funding than many other counties on a per-student basis.

"I take the school board's recommendations seriously, and will work with the school board and the commission over the next month and a half to evaluate the request based on the county's finances and other needs," Coppinger said.

Coppinger will hold a work session with the Hamilton County Commission on May 9 to discuss the school district's budget.

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 would have been needed to fulfill the budget Kelly proposed.

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.

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