Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith slowly scanned the crowd gathered in Signal Mountain Middle/High School's auditorium on Monday evening and told them what they already know.
"Only a couple other areas in Chattanooga have a community as engaged as Signal Mountain," Smith said. "It's a model of advocacy for public education in this town."
Audience members nodded their heads in agreement as Smith shared his vision and plan to build Chattanooga into "the smartest city in the south." This was the fourth of 11 similar meetings Smith is holding across the school district, as he works to rally support behind a 40-cent tax increase he's proposed. Smith says the tax hike will provide the district with an additional $34 million in funding.
Two more meetings are taking place this week:
* Today, 6:30 p.m.: District 8, David Testerman, East Ridge Middle School
* April 23, 6:30 p.m.: District 3, Greg Martin, Hixson High School
Smith's proposed budget, which includes the additional revenue, sailed past the Hamilton County Board of Education last week with a 7-2 vote in favor. But the ultimate decision for the tax rate is left to the Hamilton County Commission.
But at Monday night's meeting Smith did not tout his proposed property tax increase. He instead focused on what he called the city's "moral obligation" to offer every student in Hamilton County the best possible public education. Smith urged those in attendance to be advocates for schools across the district -- not just on the mountain.
The crux of Smith's vision for the future of Hamilton County Schools is based on educating the youngest citizens in the city. Smith wants to see art and language teachers in every elementary school, and for students to enter elementary school well prepared. Both of those dreams come with big price tags.
"People in this audience are not going to accept a sub-standard daycare," Smith said. "But a lot of people and a lot of parents don't have a choice."
Juliet Jackson, owner of Jackson Properties, questioned the fairness of the proposed property tax.
"Everybody cares about the schools," Jackson said. "And not everyone can afford to own a house, so why should we punish the people who own?"
Jackson said after the meeting that she agrees that schools need more funding, but she does not think a property tax increase is the best way to get it. She said that since rent is so competitive, it will force landlords to take on a bulk of the tax, which isn't fair since their renters are also sending their children to public schools.
"A wheel tax would spread this out evenly to everyone who owns and rents," Jackson said.
Ray Webb, past chairman of the Mountain Education Foundation, a nonprofit that raises funds for schools on Signal Mountain, said he trusts that Smith knows what the system needs, but also wants to see accountability for how the increased tax dollars will be spent.
"We can all agree that we need a better educated population," he said after the meeting. "...our children are the most valuable asset we have ... I think we've shorted them."
Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6592.