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Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith is proposing a 40-cent property tax increase to raise teacher salaries and make other improvements, such as providing art and foreign language classes in elementary grades.

"It's time," Smith said. "We haven't had any local [tax increase] for 10 years."

Smith presented a budget to school board members Thursday that increases the school district's budget by about $34 million, to about $379 million.

The budget proposal still needs school board approval on April 16. Then in May, the Hamilton County Commission would have to approve the tax hike of 40 cents per $100 of assessed value. The owners of a $150,000 house would see their tax bill rise by about $150, said Christie Jordan, the school district's director of accounting and budgeting.

"That's less than $3 a week," Jordan said.

BEEFING UP THE BUDGET

Highlights of proposed $34 million increase to Hamilton County Schools' annual budget

* A 5 percent employee salary and benefit increase: $11 million

* Educational technology and infrastructure support: $3.8 million

* Elementary art teachers: $2.2 million

* Elementary foreign language teachers: $2.2 million

Source: Hamilton County Department of Education

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Rick Smith

Smith said he's going to make a case to the community that the schools need more funding. He's asked school board members to schedule community meetings to do the same.

"It's time for us to do the right thing for our children," he said.

At least two of the nine school board members already support Smith's budget proposal. One is opposed and several others declined to say after the meeting.

"I'm for what needs to be done to enhance our schools," said board Chairman George Ricks, of Alton Park. "We've been penny-pinching too long."

East Brainerd school board member Donna Horn supports Smith's budget partly because she wants art and language taught in the elementary schools.

"No cuts," Horn said.

Soddy-Daisy board member Rhonda Thurman said the district should reduce spending before raising taxes.

"None for me, thanks," she said. "Not until we cut some stuff."

Neither Signal Mountain board member Jonathan Welch nor Hixson board member Greg Martin would say how they planned to vote, though Martin said cuts should be considered.

"Until we can find programs that are antiquated and need to be trimmed, my question is, why are we going to add [programs]?" Martin said.

Jordan said the last property tax increase the school system received was in 2005.

"It used to be that you could count on a property tax increase every four years," she said.

The county increased taxes by 26 cents in 2007, but the schools didn't get any of that, Smith said.

"We got nothing in '07," Smith said. "County government got all of it."

Smith has spent months making the case for more money for local schools but until Thursday, no specific figure had been mentioned.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger said he knew Smith was soliciting commissioners to support a tax increase, but nothing that high.

"This is the first I'm aware of what the amount would be. At this point, there's no support for a property tax increase anywhere near that magnitude," Coppinger said.

The county is midway through crafting the budget for general government, and Coppinger said at this point it doesn't include a tax hike of any kind.

Lookout Valley Commissioner Joe Graham, chairman of the Finance Committee, said, "Forty cents? No, absolutely not. There will be no tax increase this year from this commissioner. I won't vote for one."

Graham said the school should be pulling from its fund balance, not asking for more revenue.

"They have no business hoarding money, when classrooms have needs."

Commission Chairman Jim Fields said he did not want to comment, because he hasn't seen the proposed school budget.

Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.

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