Hamilton County school board hasn't started budget talks - or have they?

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, left, and Superintendent Bryan Johnson mingle after a news conference announcing the launch of the Future Ready Institutes at Howard School on Thursday, March 15, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn.
photo Hamilton County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley

Some Hamilton County school board members are concerned about recent attempts to discuss funding for special projects with Hamilton County commissioners before the school board has even gotten a look at next year's budget.

Last week, county Mayor Jim Coppinger and schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson met with two commissioners and two school board members after Chairwoman Sabrena Smedley, of District 7, asked commissioners to submit a list of priorities for each of their districts.

The resulting lists included projects such as: a new press box for Ooltewah High School's stadium, a cushioned surface for a special-needs playground at East Brainerd Elementary, replacement windows at Lookout Valley Elementary, lights for Loftis Middle's sports complex and second road entrance into Signal Mountain Middle/High and Nolan Elementary.

The meeting was briefly announced at the Feb. 20 county commission meeting, but no other public notice was given, and some school board members weren't even aware it was happening. Even some who did were uncertain why the meeting even took place.

photo Hamilton County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter introduces Emily O'Donnell during the Mayor's Council for Women's Statewide Women's Policy Conference at the Westin Hotel on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"I think it's kind of preliminary to be talking about any of this," said District 1 school board member Rhonda Thurman, who didn't know about the meeting until she was asked about it by the Times Free Press. Thurman said she didn't know why the commission was asking for facilities projects while the school district continues to wait on the results of a nearly $500,000 facilities audit that will be completed this spring.

Tucker McClendon, school board member for District 8, is the facilities point-person on the board, but he wasn't invited to the meeting with Coppinger, Smedley and District 5 commissioner Katherlyn Geter.

"I think it was a committee that was put together by the county commission, and when that happens, they have the discretion to invite who they want to invite," McClendon said.

"I expressed that if any conversation about school facilities occurred, I wanted to be a part of it," he added. "It's my understanding that anything that was discussed at that meeting will be coming to the school board to be discussed so we can get the politics out of the priorities for facilities in schools."

photo Hamilton County District 8 School Board member Tucker McClendon, right, talks with District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman during a conversation on transportation during a school board meeting on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

District 3 school board member Joe Smith, who did attend the meeting, said all board members were invited, as well as the public. He was pleased with the discussion.

"My takeaway was that the mayor is looking at a more seamless, fluid way to meet needs in each commissioner's district and have it be a part of the budget process," Smith said.

The school board itself hasn't had a meeting about Johnson's proposed budget yet. Last year, those conversations began on Feb. 15, 2018 - but the board will meet for the first time this year on March 14, almost a month later than last year's timeline.

District 6 school board member Jenny Hill said she was anxious to start budget talks, but also didn't think it was delayed. She said she trusted Johnson's commitment to gather community feedback through his community listening tour that ended Tuesday.

"We look to Dr. Johnson and his staff and the school board to align their priorities with the district's strategic plan," Hill said.

As for the "priorities" meeting, Hill said that wasn't a way she wanted needs to be addressed in Hamilton County public schools.

photo Hamilton County School Board member Kathy Lennon speaks during the Hamilton County School Board meeting Thursday, September 20, 2018 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The school board names a new chairman and vice-chairman during the meeting.

"It's not in the best interest of Hamilton County taxpayers for us to create budgets or funded projects in this way outside of the budgeting process," she said. "In the past, the Hamilton County Commission funded school projects in a less processed way. If we follow our processes, we are more transparent, we think longer term."

Hill was aware of the meeting and discussed it with her counterpart, District 6 commissioner David Sharpe. She said Sharpe reached out to her after Smedley requested they submit a priority list and that they were both committed to not identifying priorities in such a "casual way," or as District 2 school board member Kathy Lennon called it: "backwards."

Sharpe did submit a list identifying 12 priorities that included seven school-related projects, and several projects for city Youth Development Centers in the district.

Hill said she wasn't sure what the purpose of the meeting was, but hoped it would inform larger conversations.

"My hope is that Mayor Coppinger and Commissioner Smedley are trying to really illustrate what the needs are and that the end goal is not in fact to have pet projects or planned funding, but as a group to see that the old ways of doing things [are] not going to move Hamilton County forward."

photo David Sharpe

Lennon echoed Hill's concerns and said she was also concerned about where the funding would come from for the projects on the priority list and whether they were addressing the "educational needs of the children first."

The commission and the school board did originally have a joint budget meeting planned for March 11, which was rescheduled for March 18. It has been rescheduled again and it is unclear when or if the meeting will happen.

The school board meets at 5 p.m. Monday for a work session and then at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 12, for a budget work session ahead of its regular quarterly meeting. At Thursday's work session, the board is reported to be discussing budget, transportation and preliminary results of the facilities assessment.

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