Hamilton County educators frustrated as teacher raises, public education money cut from Gov. Bill Lee's budget

Staff file photo by Robin Rudd/ Attendees at a town hall on Nov. 17, 2019, hold up green cards to answer in the affirmative to a question raised at the town hall, organized by a local teacher advocacy group. Hamilton County United held a teacher town hall at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center discussing funding for public education and increasing teacher pay.

As Tennessee faces a $1 billion budget shortfall and slashes raises meant for teachers and planned additional Basic Education Program funding, Hamilton County Schools also faces a budget shortfall.

The school district will receive $1.8 million less from the state for fiscal year 2021 and instead will have to pull the money from its own pockets.

Earlier this week, district officials and school board members said a situation like this is why the board voted to stash $2.8 million in its general fund during the upcoming year, but some teachers - who already weren't receiving a raise and saw cuts to their annual pay raises, known as step increases - are frustrated.

In February, Gov. Bill Lee proposed a 4% pay hike for teachers across the state as part of what he called the "largest investment" in teacher pay in Tennessee history, but many educators even then doubted they would see it.

Hamilton County's $41,051-a-year base teacher salary for a first-year teacher with a bachelor's degree is already above other districts' minimum salaries, and the district also employs more teachers than required by the Basic Education Program funding formula.

That means that any raise from the state is spread across more employees, and typically Hamilton County teachers see less additional money in their pockets. In February, Superintendent Bryan Johnson did propose a 2.5% mid-year raise, which the school board approved, but many were holding out hope that the step increases cut from the board's approved budget in May would be reinstated after revenues came in this summer.

"As for the step increases, I wish the district would honor them," said John DeVore, a teacher at Hixson Middle School and a member of the teacher advocacy group Hamilton County United. "Classroom teachers are the single most important classroom factor in student learning, and compensation should be prioritized. In this case, it's not about the money necessarily – it's about the message it sends to educators."

As for education funding cuts at the state and, possibly, local levels, DeVore said he isn't surprised.

"Watching this unfold over the past few months, it seems to me that the school board is often reliant on other sources when it comes to making their decisions. They seemed set to approve the budget without cuts until a county commissioner stepped in and suddenly step increases are frozen. So, it follows that they might fall in step with Bill Lee in maintaining these austerity measures," he said. "It's important to remember that there is money for all of this, particularly at the state level, although Hamilton County has their own rainy day funds that they could use to make up the shortfall. Lee continues to earmark money for his voucher program despite being told no over and over.

"Bill Lee is interested in his personal projects rather than the needs of students and teachers," DeVore said.

Jeannette Omarkhail, president of the local teachers union - Hamilton County Education Association- said any cuts to education funding, even if they are new proposals, shouldn't be the first to go when cuts have to be made. She echoed DeVore in pointing out Lee's commitment to launching his school voucher program remains strong.

"The Governor cutting education is the wrong decision. Education is foundational to this country. He is still fighting for the failed $41 million in voucher funding for private schools while ignoring the current public education needs which he is constitutionally-mandated to provide," reads a statement by Omarkhail. "The voucher planned money would cover most of what is needed. He says he 'has no choice' which is not true."

Lauren Brock, another Hamilton County teacher and member of Hamilton County United, is taking this opportunity to call out elected officials both in Tennessee and Hamilton County and rally teachers to the polls.

"It's becoming clear that we, as teachers and voters, have dropped the ball. We haven't done our due diligence in getting pro-public education candidates in office and now we are seeing the consequences of that," Brock said in a statement. "We can begin to change that, though, starting with the school board elections in August."

The school board's approved $418.8 million budget is now included in Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed $800 million budget for the entire county. Coppinger presented the budget to the Hamilton County Commission on May 27. The county commission is set to vote June 24 on the proposed budget.

The school board will have to amend the budget during the fiscal year if revenue comes up short and will likely use the $2.8 million planned to set aside in its rainy day fund toward any shortfall, district officials say.

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