Hamilton County school board approves $456 million budget, 3% raise for teachers

After postponing a budget decision last month until state allocations were finalized, the Hamilton County Board of Education passed a fiscal year 2022-23 $456 million budget during a special session Monday.

The budget includes a 3% raise for teachers and a $15 minimum starting wage for all classified employees.

The budget passed 8-1 with Chairman Tucker McClendon, of East Ridge, as the no vote.

Final allocations increased by roughly $7.5 million in state funds and sales taxes combined, up from the projected $448 million.

"I'm so pleased that we were able to find these additional dollars to give our teachers raise, our staff a raise," board member Joe Smith, of Hixson, said.

The budget expands clinic and generic prescription coverage to all noncovered employees, a total cost of $900,000.

Though Marco Perez, of Signal Mountain, voted in favor of the budget, he added a word of caution.

"My concern would be to watch if employees dropped out of emergency coverage, who had emergency coverage, thinking that this will be sufficient, because we may want to revisit the possibility of at least providing some base coverage for all employees that would cover in an emergency," Perez said.

McClendon made a substitute motion to amend the budget and ask the County Commission for $10 million in recurring revenue going directly to the district's maintenance budget.

"I want to start a movement that we actually do something about our infrastructure," McClendon said. "We have a facilities crisis."

He presented a slideshow featuring pictures of classrooms, hallways and buildings in need of repair. Some showed clear water damage in the ceilings, broken windows and boarded doors.

"At some point, we as a district, we as a school board, future school boards, have to be good stewards of our buildings. And we haven't been," McClendon said. "Some of the buildings haven't seen more than a million dollars put in them since probably 1960. And it's absurd."

McClendon said the district has more than $1 billion in deferred maintenance costs and only $3 million in capital maintenance budgeted year-over-year.

But his proposal sparked debate among board members.

"I'll just be very honest: This is going to be a hard sale with the County Commission because they just don't trust us," Rhonda Thurman, of Hixson, said.

She explained that 17 years ago, the district had $4 million allocated to its maintenance budget but "gutted" the funds, causing the commission to drop the budget to $3 million.

"There's a lot of opportunities we've had to put money in our capital maintenance. And we've chose to do other things with it," Thurman said.

Karitsa Jones, of Chattanooga, disagreed with Thurman.

"We've wanted to send budgets asking for money, and we've heard the same speech we heard today from board members telling us, 'No don't go ask big brother, let's not ask Daddy for more money,' so we end up right back where we are," Jones said. "The children of Hamilton County deserve for us to ask."

Perez echoed Jones' sentiments.

"I believe, this is my personal opinion as a board member, that my role as a board member is to ask for what I believe we need for our students," Perez said.

Tiffanie Robinson, of Chattanooga, moved to table McClendon's amendment and submit a revised budget to county commissioners at a later date.

But McClendon said it was a hill he was "willing to die on," given that he will be leaving the board in September.

"It's time that we stop kicking the can down the road. And if it doesn't pass, it doesn't pass. I can't say I didn't try. But we've got to make progress," McClendon said. "This is a hill I'm willing to die on for these next three months. And anyone that wants to come with me, they're more than welcome. And if you don't, I understand, but it's the right thing to do."

Robinson's motion to table the amendment passed 8-1 with McClendon voting no.

Budget highlights

The budget is priority-based and puts community and district priorities above funding sources. Those priorities are student achievement, teachers and leadership, preparing "future-ready" students, engaging the community and supporting efficient and effective operations.

Employee compensation accounts for 78% of the budget, with some positions shifting from being funded by coronavirus relief funds to the general-purpose budget.

Overall, the budget creates 25.5 new positions funded by the general-purpose budget and 9.5 state-funded positions.

Among the new general purpose-funded positions are 10 new teaching positions to support English learners; two career and technical education teaching positions; one coordinator to support the new Construction Career Center; and one teaching and learning director position to help underserved students transition to postsecondary education.

The budget also adds six new school-based administrative positions for professional development and staffing needs.

A total of $662,993 is allocated to the Board of Education, which includes board salaries, approximately $13,000 per board member; mileage allowances, $22,700 total; and the salary of the board's administrative assistant, approximately $74,000.

The superintendent's salary sits at $237,000. Budgeted expenses include $4,500 for mileage allowances and $22,180 in stipends and supplements.

Around $8 million of the overall budget is self-funded, meaning the dollars are generated through private contributions or charges for services. The Public School Bible Study Committee, a program that provides Bible history elective courses in 27 schools, is the district's largest self-funded program with a budget allotment of $2.1 million.

Other funding sources include a remaining $83 million in federal pandemic relief funds. The first of three installments, just under $11 million, has been fully expended.

The second and third rounds, an injection of more than $125 million, have been partially spent.

Second-round relief funds have been allocated with around $13 million reserved for learning acceleration through summer and after-school programs and $6 million for the purchase of education technology.

Other allocations include $6 million to address learning loss and $5 million for facility repairs and improvements. Second-round funds are expected to be fully expended by the end of fiscal year 2023.

Almost half of the remaining third-round pandemic relief funds, $33 million out of $70 million, have been allocated to support the construction of the new Tyner Academy.

Another $23 million is reserved for learning acceleration through summer and after-school programs as well an additional $18 million to address learning loss.

Other third-round allocations include $10 million for charters and indirect administrative costs and $3 million for education technology. Districts have until the end of fiscal year 2024 to use or lose the funds.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.