Hamilton County teachers call on school board to restore lost payments

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Aaron Fowles, left, with the Tennessee Education Association, speaks to teachers Thursday outside a Hamilton County school board work session.

After unexpectedly losing special compensation they were expecting, about two dozen Hamilton County teachers attended Thursday night's school board meeting to ask that district officials reinstate the pay.

The stipend is offered to around 1,400 educators working in the district's most underserved public schools -- also referred to as Hope and Promise schools -- as a way to retain and incentivize them.

But many began the new year without the extra monthly payout.

"I, unfortunately, lost my differentiated pay unbeknownst to me," Brooke Gavin, a teacher at Orchard Knob Elementary, told board members. "I got a letter right before Christmas. And the amount of stress and problems that caused for me and countless friends, teachers in the county has been, very, very stressful."

The pay is contingent upon teachers' effectiveness scores, a system used to evaluate teacher performance, and attendance. Although district policy allows teachers to accrue and roll over unused sick days -- they are allotted 10 days each school year -- those on differentiated pay plans cannot use more than 10, according to the district's eligibility requirements.

Superintendent Justin Robertson said of those 1,400 educators, fewer than 1% lost pay due to attendance and 9% lost pay due to their effectiveness scores.

However, some were not aware of the attendance requirement, Heather Davis a teacher at East Lake Elementary, told board members.

Chief Talent Officer Zac Brown said communications had gone out.

"Our communication director sent out a video explaining," Brown said. "We posted all the information on our website, FAQs. We worked with our principals to explain the process to all their teachers. Clearly hearing from our teachers today, we need to do better, right?"

In terms of the effectiveness requirement, teachers must have an overall score of three or above on a scale of five to continue receiving the add-on pay.

The overall score is calculated using several factors, including a teacher's individual effectiveness as well as the school's effectiveness.

Though a teacher may individually have a qualifying score, if the school's score is lower, it can affect eligibility for the differentiated pay.

"Teachers work incredibly hard day in and day out to meet the needs of all our students and families," Davis said. "I also propose to give all teachers a year grace period when it comes to (their) scores. If they drop below a three in their level of effectiveness, give them a year to get it back to the acceptable level before removing their pay."

Aaron Fowles of the Tennessee Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union -- also addressed the board.

"If you're a teacher or if you know a teacher who got a pay cut for Christmas, please raise your hand," Fowles said.

Dozens of hands went up.

"So every one of these people is losing collectively thousands of dollars because they had the audacity to get COVID," Fowles said. "They had the audacity to get pneumonia. They had the audacity to stay home with their family when they got COVID."

(READ MORE: Despite national teacher shortage, Hamilton County Schools will start year with few vacancies)

In December, Fowles started a petition calling on the Hamilton County Board of Education to reinstate the pay for the remainder of the school year. It has since amassed over 300 signatures.

"Just reinstate the darn stipends," he said.

Board member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, said she would support reinstating the pay until the end of the school year.

"I'm not a big supporter of people choosing work over their health or work over their family members," Jones said. "My biggest concern now is, will we lose them in May?"

"Yes!" several teachers shouted from the audience.

Board member Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, agreed with Jones.

"Teachers who receive differentiated pay are the only ones in the county to have their pay attached to their attendance in sick days," Black said. "I think this is just an example of a lot of the complaints that I've heard about teachers wanting to be treated like the professionals that they are. They shouldn't be punished."

But board members Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, and Joe Wingate, R-Chattanooga, both former educators for the district, said professionalism means being in the classroom.

"I’m going to say this, not as a school board member, but as a teacher to teacher,” Wingate said. “I didn’t miss days. I was a head coach for two sports, my downtime was in December and summer. But as a teacher, I had no time for my colleagues missing 2 1/2 days a month." He added, "The school system's got work to do to communicate to teachers better, to treat teachers like professionals, but teachers need to act like professionals."

Grohn agreed that when he was a teacher, he would limit his days off.

"My social, emotional stress, that's what I had Saturday and Sunday for," Grohn said. "If you're going to be a professional, then you need to at least ... if you're going to sign a mortgage, don't you read the contract?"

Differentiated pay is funded through roughly $7 million in COVID-19 relief funds. And while Robertson said there must be stipulations to receive the pay, administrators will revisit the plan and present a new proposal to the board at a later date.

"There have to be guardrails," Robertson said. "We can't just say we're going to give every teacher that at these schools, this amount of money, and there's no expectation."

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327.