School board says the district needs more funding, discusses open enrollment

Hamilton County school board members, shown, will host a joint meeting with members of the Hamilton County Commission at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Tuesday.

The Hamilton County Board of Education is likely to approve a budget for this upcoming year asking for $33.5 million in additional revenue.

Board members voiced support for the budget Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly presented to them Thursday night in a finance committee work session. They are set to vote on it next week.

As Kelly presented the budget, he explained how the different line items in the additional $33.5 million request were tied to the district's strategic plan and would boost student outcomes. The extra funding would give teachers a 5 percent raise, provide new technology and post-secondary opportunities, and increase the number of literacy coaches at schools, among other things.

School board member Joe Smith said he wants the district to be able to fund everything in the proposed budget. "The bottom line is we don't have enough money," Smith said. " We've got to have some more revenue."

Smith believes the public would support a tax increase, but advised Kelly against presenting an unbalanced budget to the Hamilton County Commission in coming weeks. He suggested that school leaders provide a balanced budget and a list of other important needs with an explanation of how the money will be used to make schools better.

Kelly said if the county, which holds the district's purse strings, rejects the proposed budget, the school district still has time to make a balanced one. If the additional $33.5 million isn't in the first request, Kelly said, he worries the commission won't think it's needed.

School board member David Testerman called Kelly's budget a "wish list," and said it's time the commission states whether it will raise taxes for schools.

School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones suggested the community stand with Kelly and demand more funding for schools.

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.

During Thursday's meeting, the board also discussed launching open enrollment pilot programs at Brown Academy and Rivermont Elementary starting next school year.

Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County Schools, said the district is excited to pilot the program to "increase options and opportunities for students." The district plans to start at these two schools, and will consider expanding to more schools in coming years.

Principals at both schools talked about the new initiatives taking place in their buildings and the room to expand and serve more students.

By the end of this month, the principals will determine how many spaces are available in each grade, and families can apply for spots starting May 1. The seats will be given out on a first-come, first-serve basis, and transportation to the schools will not be provided.

School board members Tiffanie Robinson and Kathy Lennon supported the pilot, commenting that it's giving parents more choice in their children's educations and being a good steward of facilities.

But school board member Rhonda Thurman said she doesn't support piloting open enrollment at just two schools, saying it should be district-wide.

"I think Ray Charles can see what's going on here, and I sure can," Thurman said. By only offering open enrollment at a few select schools, Thurman said, only certain parents living near downtown and zoned for schools they don't like will be able to secure spots for their kids.

"Every student in Hamilton County deserves a better option," Thurman said. But she is against providing transportation to students attending schools outside of their zones.

Open enrollment without transportation has increased socioeconomic segregation in school districts across the country, as families with the ability to transport their kids will move to the sought-after schools, leaving poor kids behind.

Bus safety was also discussed during Thursday's meeting, as Durham School Services CEO David Duke gave a presentation to the board about the safety upgrades the company has completed since the fatal Woodmore Elementary school bus crash in November.

Hamilton County Schools contracts with Durham to provide much of the district's busing, and the driver of the Woodmore bus was a Durham employee.

Duke said he thinks about the crash frequently and wishes it was possible to turn back the clock and prevent it from happening.

"I also reflect on what we can do differently to make our operations safer than ever and prevent something like this from happening again," he continued. "That is possible."

Since the crash, Durham has installed smart cameras in every Hamilton County bus it operates, launched an online complaint management system, hired new monitors to help drivers with behavior management on selected routes, increased entry level pay from $13.30 to $15 an hour, and bolstered the company's safety team at the corporate level.

After the crash, the school board issued a request for proposals to see if any other bus company would be interested in taking over Durham's contract, which is set to expire this summer. But no other company submitted a bid, leaving the board with little option but to renew its contract with Durham.

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