Hamilton County school board members say 'the time is now' for tax increase for schools

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / 
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.
Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / 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's school board members on Thursday night were almost unanimously in favor of Superintendent Bryan Johnson's proposed $443 million budget - and the tax increase that must come with it.

Multiple board members said "the time is now" at a work session in which they discussed the budget proposal that was unveiled last week.

Johnson is requesting an additional $34 million for operational costs in the district's 2020 budget, which likely would mean at least a 34 cent property tax increase for Hamilton County taxpayers. The current tax rate is about $2.76 per $100 of assessed value.

"If there was ever an appetite in Hamilton County amongst the masses to invest in education in Hamilton County, I think that is today," said District 3 board member Joe Smith. "Nobody wants to pay more taxes. But the reality is that we haven't had any operations money since 2005. Are you kidding me? How many businesses would still be in business? So the timing is today."

District 8 board member Tucker McClendon echoed Smith.

"The time is now for this," McClendon said. "As someone who went through this system myself without a counselor, without an art teacher, without a social worker, things have changed since 2005. There's nothing in this binder that does not benefit students. I think the time is now."

Last week, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger confirmed that such an increase would have to come from additional revenue. On Wednesday, Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond presented his own proposed budget to the Hamilton County Commission, requesting an additional $5 million.

Hammond's request, in addition to the board's request, worries District 9 board member Steve Highlander.

"I think [commissioners] are concerned that this will be too much tax raise for their constituents," he said.

Highlander said he was "sure" that the county government would ask for more in addition to the $39 million increase already being asked for by the district and the sheriff's office.

He wouldn't guess at a number, but multiple board members referenced their individual meetings with Coppinger and Johnson earlier this week.

The mayor and the superintendent met together with commissioners and school board members earlier this week to discuss Johnson's budget proposal.

District 6 board member Jenny Hill said she was happy with the proposal.

"I am really pleased with how much it aligns with the strategic plan. I appreciate how much the percentages align with our priorities laid out in the plan. Fifty-one percent of the budget is going toward accelerating student achievement. I think that's really important," Hill said.

Before the budget gets in front of the commission, though, it must get a final stamp of approval from the school board. The board is scheduled to vote to approve it next Thursday, May 9.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman was the only board member to openly challenge aspects of the budget Thursday. She expressed her concerns with how capital funding was allocated to different schools as well as staff positions.

"When I was looking through the capital projects and the budget, there was not one thing in there that pertained to Sale Creek High School," Thurman said. "Not one thing to help them with their football field."

She also referenced capital issues at Soddy-Daisy Middle School.

"We have snakes in the school, but at least we got rid of the bats. These are some of the reasons I'm upset with this budget," she said. "Everyone wants to talk about inequity, well this here is inequity."

Johnson said Thursday night that he was not concerned about whether or not commissioners would be receptive to the $34 million request on top of the sheriff's $5 million request.

"I'm concerned about the school board and ensuring that the budget we presented would align with our priorities," Johnson said. "Next week is an important week for children."

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

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