Hamilton County school board members, commissioners donate pay raises toward student scholarships

Hamilton County School Board and Hamilton County Commissioners wrap around a table at the Hamilton County Board of Education during a joint meeting Monday, January 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Some Hamilton County school board members and county commissioners are donating their pay raises to student scholarships after a hard-fought attempt to raise taxes for education failed this summer.

Though the Hamilton County Commission turned down a 34-cent property tax rate increase to benefit the Hamilton County Schools district and fund teacher pay raises, members of both the commission and school board will receive a raise - commensurate with the county mayor's salary, which increased 2.5% in the FY 2020 budget - along with all county general government employees.

Commissioners will make $24,417, up about $595 from their current $23,821 salary. The commission chair and co-chair will earn $29,417 and $26,917, respectively.

Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, announced Wednesday that he will donate his raise to the LaBrenda Johnson Memorial Scholarships Fund. The fund was established by Superintendent Bryan Johnson when he recently announced he will donate a $15,000 bonus he earned thanks to the district's 2019 TNReady and TVAAS scores toward student scholarships.

"For many years, we have sought leadership at our department of education that would provide test results that we have now realized. I salute that leadership," Sharpe said during Wednesday's commission meeting. "I guess it just escaped me in the larger discussion over our budget that we as commissioners received a 2.5% pay raise this year. Given the opportunity as a commission to provide that same acknowledgement to teachers in Hamilton County and declining to do so recently, I would like to forego my 2.5% pay raise and contribute that to that scholarship fund."

Sharpe told the Times Free Press that his decision was not something he had discussed with Johnson, but something he decided to do the morning of the meeting, adding that he called his wife and got her blessing from his parking spot at the county courthouse.

Sharpe's decision did not result in any additional pledges from commissioners but did inspire at least three school board members to donate their raises, as well.

Per state law, elected school board members earn half the salary county commissioners earn. This year, school board members will see about a $290 raise. Board chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, will get $297.77 added to his $14,700 salary.

Board members Kathy Lennon, Tucker McClendon and Jenny Hill have said they will follow Sharpe's lead and also donate their raises toward student scholarships.

"I think it's brilliant that David Sharpe did that, I really do," Lennon, of District 2, said. "I'm proud of David Sharpe and I want to find out what opportunities are available and I want to follow suit."

McClendon, of District 8, said he also plans to donate his raise toward the scholarship fund launched by Johnson in honor of his late mother.

Hill, of District 6, posted on Facebook Thursday after news of Sharpe's pledge began to spread.

"Count me in Commissioner David Sharpe," Hill wrote. "I will join you and donate my entire county pay increase to the scholarship fund started by Dr. Bryan Johnson."

Regardless of the donations, some educators - who went without a salary hike this year - are riled up that commissioners and school board members are even getting a raise.

Dozens of teachers have spoken out on social media, shocked that the same elected officials who voted against a proposed budget that included a 5% raise for the district's certified staff would give themselves a raise.

Kendra Carpenter Young, a teacher at East Hamilton School, said she was "flabbergasted" when she learned about the raise.

"It was shocking, my jaw hit the floor," Young said. "I think the move was very tone deaf."

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, said she wasn't surprised by teachers' reactions.

"I wouldn't call it a slap in the face, but I know teachers who feel that way about the raise," she said.

Young, a veteran educator, said morale in the district was "at an all-time high" last spring when the county began the budget process. Now, many teachers are angry, she said.

"It's been eye-opening," she said. "Teachers felt like when the district discussions went out again that we were being asked to choose between raises for ourselves that support our families and the extra positions that we needed to support our kids."

She said when teachers began to hear about the commissioners' raise, they "imagine those numbers and how it could impact students."

Some school board members said they initially didn't know they would be getting a raise. McClendon also emphasized the school board has no control over its pay.

Donate to the LaBrenda Johnson Memorial Scholarships Fun

The Hamilton County Fund for Excellence will administer the scholarships, but the funds will be held by the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Community members and private donors are also invited to donate to the fund. For more information, contact Hamilton County Schools at 423-498-7043 or the Community Foundation at 423-265-0586.

"The county commission voted to give themselves a raise, school board did not vote to give themselves a raise, because we don't vote on the overall county budget," McClendon said. "By state law, we get paid exactly half of what the county commission gets paid. At the end of the day, the county commission was the one that decided about the budget and not us."

But Omarkhail said she wants to see elected officials present solutions to ongoing pay problems, rather than just place blame.

"I want the blaming and the finger-pointing to end," she said. "We need to recognize the past and look at what happened [during] this year's budget and say what we are going to do about it next year."

Hamilton County teachers will still see some extra cash in their pockets this year. Most teachers see yearly step increases in their salary schedules, and this year the district used funds from Gov. Bill Lee's budget allocation for a 2.5% raise for teachers toward salary schedule changes and consolidation.

The district is also using about $6 million of its fund balance to give teachers a one-time $1,500 raise that all full-time employees will see around November.

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

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