Hamilton County Schools chief eyes raising teacher pay, adding student resources in proposed budget

Dr. Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, speaks to Times Free Press staff on March 15, 2018.

In his first proposed budget, Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson is looking to add resources, raise teacher pay and tackle some of the individual struggles of students.

Thanks to the retirement incentive approved by the school board in February, the district has more money to play with in next year's $380 million-plus budget, in addition to routine revenue increases, property tax growth and local sales tax increases.

About 150 employees took the retirement bonus, which enticed more expensive, seasoned educators to retire, allowing those vacated positions to be filled with lower-cost employees. The projected savings - $3.5 million - as well as $2.1 million in savings from "repurposed positions" and staff reorganization across the district, allowed Johnson to present a base budget that was a million dollars less than fiscal year 2017's to his board.

Johnson's budget reflects some of the district's priorities, which he said was inspired by the 23 community listening sessions he and his staff have held across the county since he took over leadership of the district last summer. Five key areas are seeing more investment: art education, school safety, technology, community schools and social and emotional supports.

These priorities make up the majority of the $12 million in requested additions in Johnson's proposed budget, with an estimated $420,000 needed for each seven art teachers, seven English as a Second Language teachers, and seven counselors or social workers; $300,000 allotted for family engagement specialists for the new community schools models; $2.7 million allotted for technology resources and more than $730,000 for school safety enhancements and, for the first time ever, funds allotted for school resource officers.

"We are excited about the fact that we are a million under base, but with the revenue we project is going to allow us to align with our board and community priorities," Johnson said.

Repurposing positions and a district-level look at class sizes has led some in the district to worry about teacher cuts, though.

"The lowest student-teacher ratios are magnet schools, which should not surprise anyone," said board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1. Thurman is in favor of reallocating teacher positions to address class-size differences across the district, but she and other board members expressed concern about taking teachers from certain areas of the district and not from others.

"Student-teacher ratio varies widely across the district," she said. "If you're going to cut teachers, it has to be fair."

Thurman is also not in favor of the 2 percent pay raise proposed in the budget, arguing that schools and students themselves could use the more than $4 million needed for such a raise.

"I want to give it back to the taxpayers. I want to give it in block grants to the schools," she said. "If we have $4.4 million to give, I'd rather give it to kids."

District 3 board member Joe Smith is in favor of the pay increase, as well as the district's look at staffing at the school-building level.

Staffing was a "nightmare" when Johnson took over as superintendent, Smith said. "For years, for staffing across the district, there hasn't been a formula. No one's been paying attention."

School safety also has been a hot-button topic since the February shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school that left 17 dead. Community members and various activist groups have continued to call for added social and emotional supports, and the debate has ranged from arming teachers to adding school resource officers.

The district has never paid for resource officers previously - the majority of the county's are employees of the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, with the Chattanooga Police Department providing additional officers.

Sheriff Jim Hammond did address the board last month, saying that at least $4 million was needed to put an officer in every school.

"We have $1.4 million appropriated for safety, security and support. We don't just see safety as just an SRO. We know it's social and emotional supports, it's community engagement. It's not going to be one thing," Johnson said. "At the end of the day, we can have SROs every single place, but we know students are going to have needs that go beyond [that]."

Community schools also have been a recent focus, with the announcement of four additional community schools to be launched in the fall. Red Bank High School is now the district's only community school, a model of adding wraparound services to address student and community needs outside of the classroom.

The district proposes spending $300,000 on more staff needed to coordinate community schools - two such staff positions were already added when the Opportunity Zone was launched last fall.

Some community and board members have been concerned about the number of positions added to the central office since Johnson took over. That staff makes up about 4 percent of the overall budget, according to Christie Jordan, assistant superintendent of finance/purchasing for the district.

Johnson has added a number of positions, including reorganizing the assistant superintendent/chief officer structure at the central office level. That aligns with some of the recommendations made by the county budget working group, consisting of community and business leaders, in 2017.

The school board meets at 4 p.m. today. This meeting is the third in this year's budget process, with another work session scheduled before next week's regular board meeting. Johnson also held one-on-one meetings with each board member and key district officials over the last several weeks to discuss budget priorities.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.