Hamilton County budget working group endorses school district's request for more funding

Staff photo by Doug Strickland / Kim White with River City Company, left, Sheila Boyington with Thinking Media, center, and David Eichenthal with the PFM Group sit on a panel to discuss a Hamilton County Schools budget suggestion plan drafted by members of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce during a chamber meeting at Bessie Smith Cultural Center on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The plan offered suggestions for budget consolidation and improvements in efficiency.

The group of prominent local business leaders tasked with helping Hamilton County Schools be more financially savvy has spoken out in support of the district's $443 million budget request.

In a letter sent to Mayor Jim Coppinger Friday, the Hamilton County Schools Budget Working Group said members "stand ready to be mobilized in support of the budget and proposals for new revenue as they are considered by the county commission."

Who's in the Hamilton County Schools Budget Working Group

' Valoria Armstrong, vice president of national government affairs and community development at American Water Company ' Dane Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media ' Shelia Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media ' Sidney Crisp, vice president of global infrastructure at Unum ' Nick Decosimo, managing shareholder at Elliott Davis Decosimo ' David R. Eichenthal, managing director at the PFM Group ' James Haley IV, chairman of Miller & Martin ' Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Auto ' Michael Lebovitz, executive vice-president of CBL & Associates Properties ' Dana Perry, shareholder at Chambliss Law ' Kim White, president of River City Company

The working group, first convened in 2017, received a letter from Superintendent Bryan Johnson outlining the progress the district had made based on a set of recommendations the group made in a report released in 2017.

Johnson's proposed budget got its stamp of approval from the Hamilton County school board Thursday. The $443 million budget includes a request for $34 million in additional funding for added positions such as social workers and school counselors, a teacher pay bump, and further investment in technology.

"Both in his April 22, 2019 letter to the Budget Working Group outlining steps the district has taken since our group was first convened in 2017 and in the budget proposal itself, Dr. Johnson has outlined the significant improvements the district has made since he became superintendent and a compelling case for new investment in Hamilton County Schools. We applaud him and the school board for a strong vote of confidence this week," reads the letter sent to Coppinger.

Some of the key recommendations of the working group's 2017 report included reducing the number of schools and teachers, increasing teacher salaries, expanding the district's executive-level staff, incorporating the district into the planning commission approval process and establishing a new tax dedicated solely to schools.

In a letter Johnson sent to the mayor and the working group last month, he wrote that the district has made significant improvements in alignment with those recommendations.

"In the 23 months since the budget working group released its recommendations, we have utilized all resources at our disposal to help our students, teachers, faculty and staff excel," Johnson said.

Other businesses and community organizations have begun to speak out in support of the proposed budget, which would require at least a 34-cent property tax rate increase to fund, as well.

Ahead of the school board's vote, Lily Sanchez, coordinator of communications and business development for La Paz, wrote that the organization believes this budget "is a step forward in improving public education in Chattanooga, particularly for Latino students," according to a local news site.

Lesley Scearce, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Chattanooga, also wrote that the organization applauded the district's budget.

"The United Way of Greater Chattanooga applauds the proposed increase in the Hamilton County Schools 2019-2020 budget to grow student achievement by enhancing emotional support for students and their families. The necessary budget increase will allow for more school counselors, social workers, and behavior specialists to support children impacted by ACEs [adverse childhood experiences]," Scearce said.

Molly Blankenship, interim executive director of Chattanooga 2.0, a hallmark education initiative established by Hamilton County Schools, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, the Public Education Foundation and the Benwood Foundation, said that 2.0 trusted the leadership and vision of Johnson and his team.

Improving education and post-secondary opportunities for Hamilton County students is the top priority identified by the Chamber's newest initiative, Velocity 2040, which identified five key goals for Chattanooga's future.

Johnson has cited Velocity 2040 results in many of his budget pitches, highlighting the current atmosphere of support for education in the community.

The Chamber has not come out in support of the budget and Blankenship said it was too early to anticipate if it would, but said it will be conducting polls and focus groups with businesses in Chattanooga in the coming weeks to "understand the feelings of our members on a property tax increase."

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