'What's the rush?' Hamilton County school board members debate discussing superintendent's contract extension

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County Schools superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks at the beginning of a Hamilton County school board and Hamilton County Commission joint meeting Monday, December 9, 2019 at Red Bank Middle School in Red Bank, Tennessee. The meeting was held ahead of the 2020 budget cycle.

Some Hamilton County school board members are trying to ensure they won't be looking for a new superintendent any time soon, but others say they don't think they should be discussing extending Superintendent Bryan Johnson's contract just yet.

Board members debated the next step in the process at a meeting Monday night, after they voted to open the door to consider extending Johnson's contract last fall.

School board member Joe Smith, of District 3, who led the push to start discussions, said Monday that he was aware that "there was a document [the board] is about ready to vote on."

However, the board has to wait at least 15 days to add it to an agenda to vote on, so Smith asked to call a meeting on Jan. 30 to discuss the contract.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, quickly jumped in and said she didn't see any reason for rushing the conversation.

(MORE: Updated facilities report reflects community feedback, Hamilton County school board says)

"He's not going anywhere unless somebody pays out his contract and it's not going to be us," Thurman said. "If someone wants him that bad and he wants to go, let them pay out his contract and let him go. If whoever wants to leave in the middle of their contract, then let whoever wants them buy out their contract, not the Hamilton County taxpayers, again. So I'm not understanding, what's the rush?"

Johnson's current $197,500/year contract, approved by the board in July 2017, lasts for four years until July 2021. The current contract allows him to receive the same yearly salary increases that certified staff might receive and allows for a buyout agreement.

Last fall, after board members gave Johnson glowing reviews in his annual evaluation, they voted 6-2 to consider extending the superintendent's contract. Though the original contract language said it did not allow for the board to engage in any conversations about renewing the contract or extending it until 12 months from its expiration date - which is July 2021 - the board's move in September negated that, according to school board attorney Scott Bennett.

At the time, Smith said he was worried other districts might come looking to recruit Johnson since the district had already begun to show significant progress under his leadership, with improved test scores and praise from the state for student performance during the 2018-19 school year.

Some community leaders have recently cited a drop in Johnson's morale after the Hamilton County Commission voted down a property tax rate increase for public schools last summer, and during a recent meeting with the Times Free Press Johnson declined to speculate on his future in Chattanooga.

"I enjoy Hamilton County. It's a good place to raise a family," he said at the time.

Monday night, Smith emphasized again that he was worried "that someone will come along and buy out his contract."

Board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, also emphasized that he would like to have a conversation "sooner rather than later" about the superintendent's contract.

The debate quickly derailed when board members interrupted each other after board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, brought up his concerns that teachers had not gotten a pay raise last year. Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, subsequently called it to order.

It is unclear at this time if the board will hold a work session on Jan. 30 to discuss a potential contract. Details of a draft contract also could not be confirmed.

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