Hamilton County school board members fire back after commissioners question revised budget, lack of teacher pay raise

The Hamilton County School Board meets during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
The Hamilton County School Board meets during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Tucker McClendon

Some Hamilton County school board members are firing back after county commissioners questioned the district's revised budget proposal at a commission meeting Wednesday.

Board members say there is a "disconnect" between the school board and the commission, especially when it comes to funding priorities for the county's school district.

Several commissioners raised concerns about teacher compensation after a teacher pay raise was cut from the school district's fiscal year 2020 proposed budget and replaced with a one-time, $1,500 bonus.

But District 8 board member Tucker McClendon said the school district did want to give teachers a pay hike.

"We presented them a budget that has a 5% teacher raise in it, they decided not to go that route and we just don't have the funds to do a 5% teacher raise," McClendon said. "[School board members] are directly trying to do what we think is right. We are directly looking at how it affects our strategic plan. The county commission doesn't have a strategic plan, they didn't vote on our strategic plan, so I think that's where some of the disconnect comes from."

photo Kathy Lennon

Board members Kathy Lennon, of District 2, and Jenny Hill, of District 6, both attended Wednesday's commission meeting, where the district's Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg presented the district's revised $418 million general operating budget request.

She said it was obvious that some commissioners didn't understand how the district negotiates teacher pay.

"They don't understand the collaborative conferencing piece that went on and don't understand how that decision was made," Lennon said. "Which surprised me just a little bit, given that there are three county commissioners who served on the school board."

The Hamilton County Education Association came out in support of the one-time bonus proposal instead of a 2.5% teacher raise last week, ahead of the school board's vote on the revised budget.

Lennon said it concerned her that of the $33 million in cuts from the district's original budget request - which included additional support staff and resources for both student and teachers - commissioners focused on the pay raise.

photo Jenny Hill

"Were teacher raises the only thing that commissioners cared about in the budget?" she said. "That was a little disconcerting to me."

Hill echoed Lennon.

"The disconnect that I noticed is that many of the commissioners were pointing out that the most important part of the budget that was promoted was the raise, but that was inaccurate. The budget was consistently presented as an entire package," she said. "The commissioners perhaps had their own personal interest for what part of the budget was most important, but the perspective from the school board and the district is the entire package is critical."

District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe raised that issue to his colleagues Wednesday, after several commissioners alluded to public support of teacher raises. A poll conducted earlier this year found that 89% of participants supported increasing teacher pay, but Sharpe suggested Wednesday 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."

photo Joe Smith

District 3 board member Joe Smith and District 9 board member Steve Highlander both say they weren't offended by commissioners' questions Wednesday. Smith even said he was pleased with the conversation.

"It was pretty clear that just about every one of those commission members care about and agree that teacher compensation is not where it should be, they all felt that way," Smith said. "The piece that was interesting is [that] they stopped short of publicly going on record on how we are going to get them where they need to be."

Smith did say he felt that some commissioners were posturing politically ahead of what already might be a contentious budget season next year.

The teachers have a lot of bargaining chips that they can play next year," he said. "The county commission is already preparing themselves for that."

photo Steve Highlander

Highlander, who didn't attend the meeting and said he had only heard bits and pieces, said the only thing that matters to him is the relationship and "open lines of communication" between board members and commissioners.

"We have different roles, different perspectives. ... It's essential that we work together," Highlander said. He said he gathers input from many commissioners ahead of his own major votes in order to understand what they might support.

Highlander supported teacher pay increases and pushed for a raise throughout the budget process. He cautioned his fellow board members from disengaging with their counterparts on the commission.

"If we don't watch it, we can't get fixated on one position and we need to look at every perspective," he added.

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

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