Hamilton County teachers call on school board to approve superintendent's new contract, raise

Many attendees hold up green cards to answer in the affirmative to a question raised at the town hall. Hamilton County United held a teachers town hall at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center discussing the funding of public education and increasing teacher pay on Nov. 17, 2019.

Hamilton County United, the teacher advocacy group behind an open letter calling out the five county commissioners who voted against a tax increase last year, is back.

This time the group and more than 200 Hamilton County teachers are calling on the school board to approve a contract extension for Superintendent Bryan Johnson.

The board is set to vote Thursday on a new, four-year contract for Johnson, which includes a pay hike and other incentives.

Though some board members have supported the early contract discussions, others have been concerned about increasing Johnson's salary - from about $222,000 a year to $240,000 annually - after teachers had to forgo a raise last summer.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Howard School teacher Ashley Cox, center, shares some of her ideas, while Superintendent Bryan Johnson listens. Hamilton County Schools senior leadership team and Superintendent Bryan Johnson held a community listening sessions to gain insight on the community's priorities at the Howard School on February 18, 2020.

Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, has maintained his concerns about extending Johnson's contract so far in advance of its end date - June 2021 - and his concern about the lack of attention paid to teacher raises during last year's budget cycle.

Highlander said he was undecided on how he would vote Thursday, but did say he would consider what the district's teachers have to say.

"Teachers aren't my only constituents, but they are constituents. - I certainly want to listen and hear what they have to say," he told the Times Free Press on Wednesday.

In a video promoting the letter, Kendra Young, one of the organizers of Hamilton County United and a teacher at East Hamilton School, said Johnson has been an advocate for teachers.

"How can we possibly go and ask teachers and staff to support an early contract renewal and raise for Dr. Johnson when we are all still waiting on our raises, too?" Young said. "If you'll recall, back in the summer the original budget included a 5% raise for all faculty and all staff in addition to additional classroom supports and other measures that we desperately need in our classrooms. Unfortunately, our funding body simply refused to fund. However that is no reflection on [Johnson] and his job performance, so we hope you will join with us in supporting his contract extension."

Teachers might also see a raise soon, too. The school board is also set to vote on Thursday on a 2.5% raise that would be effective immediately for all district employees.

The open letter from the group goes on to highlight what the teachers say has been a transformation in Hamilton County schools.

"We understand that those who aren't fortunate enough to be present daily in our schools may not fully appreciate the difference we've witnessed in our district over the past three years," the letter reads. "Under Dr. Johnson's leadership, our schools have transformed into the fastest improving school system in the State of Tennessee. This accomplishment alone is noteworthy, but for us it's Dr. Johnson's work ethic, approachability, willingness to listen and respond to criticism, student-centered approach, and deliberate empowerment of educators to be both experts in our classrooms and voices for our students that we hold most dear."

Ashley Cox, a teacher at the Howard School for nine years, encouraged her fellow educators to speak out in support of Johnson, who she said has made "radical change" in the school district since he was hired in July 2017.

photo Staff Photo by Robin Rudd/ Kendra Young, one of the organizers of the event, welcomes the audience. Hamilton County United held a teachers town hall at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center discussing the funding of public education and increasing teacher pay. November 17, 2019

"When considering the improvement taking place in our county, I believe it's important that the momentum continues. Dr. Johnson is doing a great job of starting new initiatives like the Future Ready Institutes and the 1:1 initiative. He's not afraid of implementing radical change in our district, and honestly, it's needed," Cox said in a statement. "Also, he's an advocate for teachers and students! Continuing his contract would benefit the district as a whole. He's inspiring change, and it's working."

At least 269 educators and supporters had added their names to the letter of support as of Wednesday afternoon. The group plans to send the letter to school board members Wednesday evening.

Last October, about 70 teachers called out commissioners Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin and Chester Bankston for voting against a wheel tax referendum and the property tax increase included in the first round of FY 2020 budget proposals that could have directed more funding to public education.

Then, after the 18 county commissioners and school board members were invited to a town hall, which many of the group's organizers considered a call to action, the open letter collected more than 1,340 signatures.

Hamilton County United spearheaded the town hall and has organized dozens of teachers across the district to speak out on issues ahead of this year's budget cycle and election season.

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

More Info

To view or sign the letter, visit: www.facebook.com/HamiltonCountyUnited.