Hamilton County school board approves budget that cuts teacher pay increases, central office positions in response to COVID-19

The central offices of the Hamilton County Department of Education are located in the Enterprise South Industrial Park, near the corner of Hickory Valley Road and Bonny Oaks Drive. / Staff file photo
The central offices of the Hamilton County Department of Education are located in the Enterprise South Industrial Park, near the corner of Hickory Valley Road and Bonny Oaks Drive. / Staff file photo

The Hamilton County school board on Thursday night approved a revised fiscal year 2021 budget that cuts teachers' annual step - or pay - increases, administrative positions in the district's central office and freezes non-teacher hiring and purchasing through June 30 in response to economic conditions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

The revised $417 million budget proposed by Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his team at a special meeting Thursday cuts about $4 million from the district's original $420 million budget proposal, presented on March 30, and cuts any projected increases in local property or sales tax revenues.

"The COVID-19 budget impact potentially creates widespread challenges that may require significant cuts," Johnson said. "We have learned that [the] county government will hold property and sales tax revenue at fiscal year 2020 levels."

The board delayed approval of its proposed fiscal year 2021 budget last week after several board members expressed the desire to get more feedback from Hamilton County commissioners on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Though some commissioners commented on revenue projections during their meeting on April 29, board member Joe Smith, of District 3, said he didn't feel that the commission had given the board any more direction.

Freezing annual step increases cuts about $2.8 million from the proposed budget, and cutting two director-level positions in the central office would eliminate another $300,000, according to Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg. Those positions are two of the district's five learning community directors and will force restructuring of those learning communities as well, district officials said.

The district also proposed halting negotiations on a new custodial contract and instead continuing under an extended contract with its current vendor, ABM, in an effort to save about $600,000.

Goldberg said the board can always reconsider amending the budget and reinstating the increases if the money does become available.

"If in June, when we get revenue reports and it looks like the economic conditions are changing favorably, we might come back to the board and consider reinstating these step increases," he said.

Goldberg also noted that when making these recommended cuts, district staff took into consideration ensuring current employees don't lose their jobs and don't see pay cuts.

"We want to pay our teachers and leaders and staff," Johnson told the board.

Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, voted against the budget revisions. She said freezing employee salaries - which has been a contentious topic over the past few budget cycles - is a red flag for her.

"It's kind of a red flag for me because of the importance that we have put on great teachers and great leaders and how we have tried to make sure that is a top priority in what we do," Lennon said. "I don't understand why that is the first thing that goes away."

Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, pushed to delay the vote Thursday night in order to go through the budget more deeply - but eventually just voted against the budget, which passed 6 to 3.

"I wonder if we can go through this with a fine-toothed comb and be able to maintain this commitment we made to teachers last year," Hill said. "I want us to be very thoughtful, and not necessarily very quickly."

Board members Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, and Tucker McClendon, of District 8, both also encouraged their fellow board members to cut the $20,000 allocated for school board member travel in the FY 2021 budget.

The school board will present its adopted budget to the Hamilton County Commission on May 5.

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

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