District leaders present $410 million balanced budget to Hamilton County school board

Superintendent Bryan Johnson presents his 2019-20 budget to the school board at the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
Superintendent Bryan Johnson presents his 2019-20 budget to the school board at the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools leaders presented a new $410 million balanced budget to the Board of Education for consideration Thursday night, after the system's initial $443 million fiscal year 2020 budget request was shot down by the Hamilton County Commission last month.

The budget, $33 million less than Superintendent Bryan Johnson's original proposal, includes major revisions such as the cutting of more than 220 positions, including 28 reading interventionists, 14 school counselors, 15 social workers, four English as a second language teachers and more.

The revised budget also cuts the proposed 5% teacher pay raise in half to 2.5% and reduces the district's potential to eliminate general instruction school fees, as well as its investment in student technology.

"It is deeply sobering to see $10 million cut out of a budget that was dedicated to accelerating student achievement. It is deeply disappointing to see $9 million cut out that would assist our students toward being ready for what's next," said school board member Jenny Hill, of District 6.


July 15 at 5 p.m.: Agenda sessionJuly 18 at 5:30 p.m.: Regular monthly board meetingJuly 23 at 9:30 a.m.: Joint Hamilton County Commission and school board meeting at the county's McDaniel Building, 455 North Highland Park Ave.* All meetings except for the July 23 joint meeting will take place in the Hamilton County Schools' boardroom at 3074 Hickory Valley Road.

The budget isn't finalized and a date hasn't been set for when a vote will be held. Some commissioners expressed a desire to work with county commissioners to figure out where money could be better spent, but several were against the idea.

"We are going to be meeting together on [July 23], can that be a time that we do work together and let our commissioners help us figure this out?" said board member Joe Smith, of District 3. "Maybe ask them what we need to keep and what we need to cut?"

Hill disagreed.

"We are not their kid brother and sister, we are their equals. I would hope they would acknowledge the vision that we have for the Hamilton County school system and would rise to the occasion" she said. "I was not elected to babysit the school system. I was elected to speak for the taxpayers and to speak for our children first and foremost and put our students first. I want kids to be able to read. That's what matters. I want kids to be able to do algebra. For kids to be able to go to the [International] Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and pass an exam and get a high-paying job."

As the board debated how to spend the approximately $11 million it has of $19 million in growth money not tied to "contractual or unavoidable expenses," Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, echoed Hill.

"I believe that the school system is going to continue to improve and eventually it's not going to be gray anymore. It's going to be black or white. You either want the school system to improve or you don't," Wingate said.

The proposed budget might undergo continued revisions. Board members disagreed on how to spend $1 million now budgeted to help reduce school fees for students and parents, with many hoping to fund school support staff such as counselors, in-school suspension monitors or literacy specialists.

Johnson advised the board to invest in the 28 reading interventionists cut from the original proposal, which would cost about $1.1 million, according to Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg.

"I wouldn't be able to sleep well tonight if I didn't say this. ... I believe with every fiber of my being that if you teach a child to read, you change the trajectory of their life," Johnson said. "If you were going to ask for my half cents. ... I believe that reading interventionists are the most important thing."

But board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, shot back, saying she is embarrassed the district "can't teach children to read."

"I am ashamed to sit here and say we have a $400 million budget and we can't teach children to read. People learned to read before computers. People learned to read by candlelight. People learned to read even under fear of being put to death," she said.

Wingate adjourned the meeting, noting that what he was embarrassed about is something he's shared with some of the county commissioners.

"I think the embarrassment for me hit me in 2015 when I saw some of the achievement scores. Some of the embarrassment from lack of children being able to matriculate through the school system," Wingate said. "The embarrassment for me is if I was in leadership for 14, 15 years and that was happening under my watch."

Board members were mum, though, Thursday on when they planned to vote on the budget or if they planned to attempt to ask the county commission for partial funding of their original $34 million request.

The board meets again Monday for an agenda session ahead of a budget work session and its regularly scheduled monthly meeting July 18.

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

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