Tax increase? Hamilton County Schools superintendent asks for additional $34 million in $443 million budget proposal

Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks about the proposed 2019-20 budget during a press conference at the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks about the proposed 2019-20 budget during a press conference at the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson is asking for an additional $34 million in the district's FY 2020 budget, a request he says is critical to the future of student success.

While it's well below the $80 million in increased needs and priorities that have been identified across the district, Johnson said his goal was to propose an "aspirational, not unreasonable" budget.

During a presentation to the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Johnson introduced a $443 million budget that garnered praise from the board. It must get approval from the Hamilton County Commission, which will take the issue up next month.

The increase would allow the district to "position ourselves so that we can support our children in a way that they can be successful," Johnson told the Times Free Press.

"It is an important budget for our school system, an important budget for our children, and important budget for our community at large," Johnson said. "The reality is we are at an inflection point. This is the moment in time for this community that we really have to accelerate student achievement and that our schools are resources so we can carry forth with [our] five-year plan."

"It's time to get it right," he added. "It's time to really invest in the promise of our children."

The additional $34 million would allow for more than 350 additional positions, including:

> 10 social workers

> 10 special education teachers

> 11 art teachers

> 15 truancy officers

> 14 school counselors

It would also include funding for teacher raises, increased technology such as giving every student a laptop, eliminating general school fees and providing more funding for teachers to attend training opportunities.

The budget is an almost 13% increase over the district's FY 2019 budget, but some of that increase comes from natural growth funds and additional projected revenue sources. The district has not had a budget increase for operational costs since 2005, Johnson said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said such a request would not be possible without an additional source of revenue - either property taxes or sales taxes increases.

The most obvious thought would be increased property taxes, Coppinger said, however he said he has not reviewed Johnson's proposal.

Once the school board approves a budget, the mayor said he will begin weeks of one-on-one meetings with commissioners and county departments as he puts together the county's proposed budget, which will include the school district's.

In 2017, the district received a one-time $110 million in funds from the county commission for capital projects.

Johnson said his staff put together the budget based on priorities of school leaders, teachers and the community. His staff members were charged with aligning their department requests with goals outlined in the district's strategic plan, Future Ready 2023, adopted by the school board last fall.

"It's understanding that we are using community resources and really wanting to be thorough about what we do," he said.

Some of the items not in the budget proposal but listed as unfunded priorities include an annual capital maintenance budget increase, transportation to Future Ready Institutes and open enrollment schools, additional school counselors, art teachers, interventionists and more.

Many board members were enthusiastic and supportive of Johnson's budget proposal.

District 2 board member Kathy Lennon said she was thrilled.

"Now the work is going to have to begin. I'm going to have to work with my county commissioner and hopefully tell him how important it is to fund it. It's for the kids," Lennon said. "This is for the initiatives that we as a board put out there in our strategic plan. If we are going to be the fastest improving school district and provide the resources that we need to provide for our kids, we have to do it."

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, said it's a pivotal moment in Hamilton County.

"I thought it was bold. I thought it was what this district needs," McClendon said. "I think everything in this budget is what we need. Everything in it helps our students and I think this is a pivotal moment in Hamilton County and what we need to do to take the turn for education."

District 9 board member Steve Highlander and District 1's Rhonda Thurman said they were not in favor of bringing an unbalanced budget to the commission.

"I think our fund providers expect that and I want to get along with them and work as closely with them as I can," Highlander said.

He prefers the district present a balanced budget and attach a wish list of priorities, but Johnson's team already has an additional $39 million list of priorities that are not included in his $443 million proposal.

"The years I've been on the board, we've always asked for far more than a balanced budget and we've always been turned down cold turkey and been told to go back to the board and start all over," Highlander said. "We need to start with a balanced budget and then say, 'Here's what we need to achieve these goals.'"

Thurman agreed with Highlander and said such an ask meant a property tax increase, which she doesn't think is realistic.

District 3 board member Joe Smith, who has been an advocate for balanced budgets and praised Johnson's FY 2019 budget last year, wasn't as sure this year.

"I need to dissect it," Smith said. "I am encouraged and excited about what's going on today. We've come a long way in the last two years. And that's a big number that we're asking for ... but we have a lot of needs and if we really want to invest in our kids' education, then let's invest in it."

The board will meet Thursday, May 2, for another budget work session and is expected to vote on the proposal on May 9.

The approved budget will be presented to the county on May 14.

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

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