'We need more funding, not less': Reinstating Hamilton County teacher pay increases less likely with state budget shortfall

Drop in state revenue jeopardizes raises for teachers, state workers

Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County school teachers rise for a standing ovation after the Board of Education approves a two-and-a-half percent raise for school teachers during a meeting of the Hamilton County Board of Education on Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A drop in Tennessee state revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is jeopardizing the remaining raises planned for teachers and state workers in Gov. Bill Lee's proposed budget, and Hamilton County Schools officials are watching for how funding cuts could hurt local schools.

Some teachers who have held on to hope that raises cut from the Hamilton County Schools' proposed fiscal year 2021 budget would be reinstated as officials got a better understanding of revenue projections this summer are now doubtful they'll see raises at all. They're now concerned about the larger impacts of cutting education funding.

"I don't think any of us expected that to happen," said Kendra Young, a teacher at East Hamilton School and one of the founders of the teacher advocacy group Hamilton County United. "Obviously, we are hopeful that raises will be reinstated. However, history has taught teachers that once we lose something, whether it's a raise, a step increase, a benefit of some kind once it's gone, it'll take moving heaven and Earth to get it back."

As the Hamilton County school board debated how to present a balanced budget to the Hamilton County Commission this April, an across-the-board raise wasn't ever a part of the deal. Superintendent Bryan Johnson proposed a 2.5% raise for teachers in February, which will remain, but at the time he had hinted at requesting an additional raise this summer.

Instead, the school board's final $418.8 million budget cut teachers' annual step, or pay, increases in order to balance the budget and save the district $2.8 million.

Some board members said they hoped to reinstate the step increases this July, but that seems less likely to happen now, district officials say.

"Between the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding being reduced slightly and where we might be with sales taxes, at this point I don't think it's likely that we can do any sort of raise this coming year," said the district's chief business officer, Brent Goldberg.

Last week, as Lee's finance chief directed state agencies to reduce their budgets by 12%, the governor did say his administration is committed to maintaining current state funding levels for schools, according to Chalkbeat Tennessee, but new education spending is what is still at risk.

Hamilton County only faces losing about $1.8 million of the $175 million in the BEP funding it's set to receive this year, according to Goldberg, but that will mean another $1.8 million drop in revenues.

Jeannette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association (HCEA), the local teachers' union, said the district will have to fill in whatever gap the state leaves.

"The state should not be cutting education funding. They need to keep that 2% increase. [Gov. Lee] already dropped it from 4% to 2%. There are other things that they need to look at before they cut teacher pay," Omarkhail said. "If the state isn't going to give it to us - which they should because there is only so much a county can do - then the district is going to have to find it."

The school board voted in May to put $2.8 million of its proposed FY 2021 budget into its general fund in order to compensate for potential budget shortfalls, Goldberg noted.

Board member Tucker McClendon said situations like this, where the district is looking at decreased state funding, is an example of such a shortfall.

"I think we all knew that we are in uncertain financial times and that's why we said many times that we would be back at a later date discussing the budget because we didn't know what the future held a month ago or even two weeks ago," McClendon said. "I think we are going to have to tighten our belts and do everything we can to get through this economic uncertainty."

Young isn't even focused on the loss of teacher pay increases this summer, though. Instead, she is worried about reopening schools this fall and how the district will do so without more funding and support from the state.

"Our COVID [case] numbers are rising rapidly in Hamilton County. If that trend continues, to open schools you're going to have to reduce class sizes, and to reduce class sizes you need additional staff, not less staff. You'll need additional bus routes, not less bus routes. You'll need additional maintenance staff. You're going to need additional tech support and devices for students [and] teachers," she said. "How anyone thinks we are going to open with reduced funding is beyond me. We need more funding, not less."

Hamilton County Schools is under a hiring and purchasing freeze until June 30. Though the district has convened a task force for reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it has yet to present recommendations or final plans.

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