Hamilton County school board approves $418 million revised budget, sends it back to the county commission

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.

The ball is back in the Hamilton County Commission's court.

The Hamilton County Board of Education approved a revised budget for fiscal year 2020, almost a month after the commission sent back the board's first proposal, which asked for an additional $34 million in funding.

The $418 million budget approved in a 7-2 vote at a special called session Thursday night, includes $19 million in growth money from increased local tax revenue and other projected revenue increases. It also utilizes about $8 million from the district's fund balance to pay for a one-time bonus for teachers, instead of a 2.5% pay raise originally included in the first revised budget proposal.

Board members had to "go back to the drawing board," after the commission voted against the property tax rate increase needed to find the $443 million budget request the board initially approved in May. At the time, Superintendent Bryan Johnson called the plan "ambitious, but reasonable."

That budget would have added more than 300 new positions including support staff like school counselors, social workers, truancy officers and special education assistants, as well as increased funding for student technology and a 5% pay bump for teachers.

The newest version of the budget adds a little more than half of those positions, including 32 reading interventionists, five special education teachers, 15 special education assistants, 10 elementary school counselors, an in-school suspension monitor for every high school, five truancy officers and five social workers.

The new budget also will eliminate school fees, using $1 million for the district's fund balance and about $800,000 in the FY 2020 general operating budget to provide funding directly to schools. Instead, schools can only collect a $25 arts, science and technology fee from parents when students return next month.

In the weeks since the board began debating a revised budget, some have said that the new proposals pitted the 2.5% teacher pay raise against student supports. Last week, District 8 board member Tucker McClendon proposed the one-time bonus plan that would free up more than $6 million in funding to add some of the desired new positions.

"I originally voted for a 5% raise and it was shot down, so we had to go back to the drawing board," said McClendon. "I think we were in a position where we had to choose students over our teachers, but I think we got a win for both of them with this budget."

That plan was ultimately approved by the board, after soul searching and tons of input from teachers, board members said.

"The last thing that we need is for the majority of our teachers to be unhappy with a decision we make tonight," said school District 4 board member Tiffanie Robinson.

Robinson asked her colleagues what they had heard from teachers and their constituents and several said they had heard from many teachers who were willing to forego a pay raise for additional supports.

"Some of them are at the point where they are just ready to leave. If they could get those additional supports, they would sacrifice not getting the full amount," said District 5 board member Karitsa Mosley Jones.

District 9 board member Steve Highlander and District 1 member Rhonda Thurman both countered and said many teachers wanted and needed the raise.

Both ultimately voted against the revised budget. The two also voted against the original budget, approved in May.

Though many teacher representatives on the district's collaborative conferencing team ware in favor of the revised budget, they've made it clear that it's not enough.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association (HCEA), said the union and the district has had to grapple with meeting the needs of both teachers and students.

"What it means for our students is that they are going to have more supports in the building, which also means more supports for the teachers," Omarkhail said. "That is a huge plus. For the teachers it means yes, they are going to get a step increase, but some won't get very much."

Thanks to an increase in projected revenue and "fiscal responsibility" by the board, the district will come in under budget for FY 2019, said Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg.

Despite the $8 million taken out of the fund balance under this proposal, Goldberg said that the district will still have at least $30 million of unassigned funds in the fund balance, keeping in line with the state requirement to have 3% of the total operating budget in savings.

The new budget will go back to the county commission, to be included with a new overall budget FY 2020 proposal for the county. School officials said they anticipate the commission voting at its July 31 meeting, but no vote is scheduled at this time.

The board also unanimously approved the district's new "Code of Acceptable Behavior," as well as a memorandum of understanding with HCEA in an 8-1 vote Thursday night.

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

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