Ahead of revised budget vote, Hamilton County commissioners debate how to fund public education

The Hamilton County Commission meets at the Hamilton County Courthouse on June 5, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Hamilton County Commission meets at the Hamilton County Courthouse on June 5, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

One week before the vote on the revised fiscal year 2020 operating budget, Hamilton County commissioners spent the better part of two hours debating how to progress on funding for Hamilton County Schools.

The commission will vote Wednesday on the new $794 million balanced county operational budget for 2020, proposed after the panel shot down County Mayor Jim Coppinger's initial proposed budget, which included a 34-cent property tax rate increase to benefit public education. The new budget does not include a tax increase.

On Wednesday, Brent Goldberg, chief business officer for the school district, presented the schools' new $418 million budget to the commission, fielding questions about sub-par facilities and a lack of teacher pay raises.

Though five of the nine commissioners voted against the tax increase, which would have funded a 5% raise for teachers, many of the same commissioners expressed concern Wednesday about the lack of any pay raise in the district's new operating budget, absolving themselves of responsibility in the matter since they do not have line-item veto power of the department's budget, saying they were just the "funding body."

"When the initial budget came out ... people in my district where just up in arms about a huge tax increase and stuff. But almost every person I talked to, their reaction was the same," District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks said. "But almost every single one of them would follow it up with saying, 'But I would be for a raise for the teachers.' ... So when the budget came out, the lead was always the teachers and their raise that always seemed to be the most important part of what was presented. ... Where did you get to a point that the part I was thinking was the most important part of the budget was cut first?"

Goldberg said the decision was made during collaborative conferencing meetings with Hamilton County Education Association - the local teachers union - which deemed adding additional support staff for teachers was more important than the raise.

HCEA President Jeanette Omarkhail said it "was a very difficult decision" that required a lot of discussion and feedback, but that ultimately, the teachers chose to "put themselves second again" and forgo raises to prioritize other budget matters "for the students."

While teachers do not receive a salary increase in the new budget, all full-time employees will receive a $1,500 bonus in November if the new budget is passed.

"An overwhelming number of teachers said they would be willing to give up their raise to get help in the classroom," Omarkhail said, adding teachers began to complain after the budget was presented with no raise, making the positive and negative feedback "about even."

Repeatedly during the meeting, commissioners who had opposed the tax increase expressed their concern for the lack of a teacher pay raise, citing polls and anecdotal evidence that showed the support for teacher raises by the county throughout the budget process.

District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who advocated and voted in favor of the tax increase, suggested that some commissioners were only selectively considering public input in budget decisions.

"But I'd also like to point out that well over 60% of [participants] of that poll indicated that the county supported the overall 34 [cent] tax increase," Sharpe said. "So I'm not sure where that argument gets us."

Commissioners proceeded to argue the validity of community polls that gauged public opinion on the budget.

The poll cited by Sharpe, which was conducted by Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies, polled 400 registered and engaged, or "likely" voters, in Hamilton County. The poll was conducted live via telephone between Jan. 31 and Feb. 2, 2019. The Bolger poll showed that 61% of participants supported increasing property taxes to fund education.

District 7 Councilwoman and Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley cited an online open poll on The Chattanoogan with a larger, but less regulated, sample showing more than 70% were opposed to the increase.

With a clear divide among commissioners about how to best fund schools going forward - specifically fixing facilities as outlined in the recently released facilities audit - Smedley suggested leaving the decision up to the community.

"We're going to have to go out into our communities and get some input," she said. "And I think one way to find out how everyone feels, instead of everyone running their own little polls, is let's put it on the referendum and we'll see what the taxpayers [think]."


In non-budget related announcements, Sharpe called for a meeting of the county's Security and Corrections Committee to discuss recent oversight concerns following a questionable search incident involving two Hamilton County Sheriff's Office deputies.

Sharpe's request was in reference to a July 10 traffic stop, during which two deputies are seen in dashcam footage punching and kicking a handcuffed man on the side of a road in Soddy-Daisy. The incident is under investigation and the deputies are on paid suspension, but local leaders and community members have called for change in law enforcement oversight.

Committee member and District 5 Commissioner Katherlyn Geter said Wednesday she was "deeply troubled" by the incident.

"There is an alarm sounding within each of us," she said. "Although we understand that law enforcement is here to protect and serve, we also know and realize there is no excuse for misconduct of any kind such as unlawful use of excessive force."

In her statement, Geter said there are too many unanswered questions about the incident and that deputies allegedly stripping the subject and performing a cavity search on the side of the road was "arguably equivalent to sexual assault."

The meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. on Aug. 7 at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Georgia Ave.

Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at staylor@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.

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