Hamilton County Schools superintendent set to receive 5.5% pay hike if new contract approved this week

Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a school board meeting Thursday, July 11, 2019 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson is set to receive about a 5.5% pay hike when the school board approves his contract extension at its next meeting.

Despite lengthy discussions, board members did not request any changes to the proposed contract presented by board attorney Scott Bennett at Monday's agenda session.

Instead of extending Johnson's current contract, the board has to replace it with a new one. The new one will raise Johnson's base pay to $240,000 a year, add a $10,000 untaxed yearly contribution to his retirement plan and allow for a combined total of up to $20,000 for four performance-based raises.

Board members have been concerned about the timeline of Johnson's new contract vote, as well as the pay bump.

But Bennett said based on Johnson's current base pay, which has increased from an initial $197,000 a year in the contract ratified by the board in 2017 to about $222,000 thanks to certified staff raises and a $15,000 performance bonus, the gap is pretty narrow.

"That is a radically different conversation," said school board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4.

The board is set to vote on a 2.5% pay raise for all employees on Thursday that would be effective immediately. Under his contract, the superintendent is eligible for all certified staff raises.

Bennett explained that including that 2.5% raise as well as a possible 2% that could be added to the district's fiscal year 2021 budget this summer, Johnson would already be making $232,100 a year.

Both Robinson and board member Joe Smith, of District 3 - who has led efforts to secure Johnson's position in Hamilton County since last September - made sure to emphasize the salary adjustments at Monday night's meeting.

Previously, board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, said he was concerned about the superintendent receiving a raise when Hamilton County teachers had not received one this year.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, who has said she will not approve the contract extension, also questioned the timing of the proposal for the teacher pay hike, which was made during Johnson's State of the System address earlier this month and just before the contract vote. But Johnson vehemently denied any connection or related timing during Monday's meeting.

photo During a Hamilton County Schools board meeting, board member Tiffanie Robinson asks a question about a policy as the board goes over policies before approving or reworking items on the list Thursday, July 11, 2019 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Board members also expressed concerns about the lack of a buyout clause in the draft contract and the potential for Johnson to earn money for speaking or writing engagements while on the job.

The superintendent's contract is for 260 days a year, compared to those of most full-time employees such as administrators or central office staff, which are for 240 days.

Highlander did the math and wondered whether, with possible performance bonuses or general raises that could mean Johnson might be making nearly $260,000 a year, if the board would want him to be able to earn extra money while "[the district] is paying him $1,000 a day."

Bennett said the board was within its rights to limit the number of days Johnson could engage in such activities or what constitutes neglect of his responsibilities, but the board "would have to police him" as it stands. He did say he would talk to Johnson about the matter before Thursday's vote.

The former chairman, Highlander, also hinted that Johnson might not have his vote Thursday because of the timing of the contract renewal. He said he believes Johnson is a man of high integrity, but thinks "it is appropriate to stick to the contract and [vote] at the appropriate time."

The board hastened contract talks because of this year's blackout period that ban districts from negotiating new contracts or hiring superintendents from May to September due to school board elections in August.

photo Hamilton County Schools board member Rhonda Thurman asks for more clarification on an item as the board goes over and updates policies during a school board meeting Thursday, July 11, 2019 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

According to the American Associations of School Administrators' 2018-19 School Superintendent Salary and Benefits Survey, the median base salary for superintendents by district enrollment ranged from $96,750 to $260,000 a year.

"All positions, from superintendent to teacher, show that salaries increase relative to district enrollment size as well as slight increases over previous years," according to the report.

Hamilton County Schools is the fourth largest school district in Tennessee, with Metro Nashville Public Schools, Shelby County Schools and Knox County Schools leading it in size.

Johnson was not present during the majority of Monday's contract discussion at the request of board members, and board members Kathy Lennon, of District 2, and Jenny Hill, of District 6, were absent. Lennon and Hill were meeting with state lawmakers in Nashville this week on behalf of the school board.

The school board is set to vote on Johnson's new contract on Thursday. The meeting is at 5:30 p.m. and the superintendent's contract will be the first item on the agenda, per state law.

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