CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct transposed words that caused two schools to be misidentified.
School board member Donna Horn and County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley share the same East Brainerd constituents, but they're divided over a proposed 40-cent property tax hike to raise $34 million for Hamilton County's public schools.
The first local school tax increase in a decade would bring art and foreign language classes to the elementary grades, increase teachers' pay and benefits by 5 percent, help buy up-to-date technology and make other improvements, said schools Superintendent Rick Smith, who unveiled the proposal at a Thursday night school board work session.
The increase would raise the tax rate to $3.16 per $100 of assessed value and add $150 annually to the tax bill of a $150,000 home. It still needs approval in April from the school board and in May from the County Commission.
How to calculate your tax
Here's how you can calculate your tax bill: Assessed value divided by 100, times .25, times tax rate. For a $100,000 home, divide 1,000 by .25 and multiply result by tax rate. At a $3.16 tax rate, your tax would be $790.
And it looks like an uphill battle, since a majority of the nine county commissioners already are against increasing the district's budget to $379 million, up from $345 million now. A straw poll of commissioners found four "no" votes and two who leaned that way. Three commissioners either declined to comment or didn't respond.
"Sounds like I would be a 'no' vote," Smedley said Friday. "I campaigned that I would be fiscally conservative and not support a tax increase unless there was a cataclysmic event."
Horn wasn't surprised to hear that the County Commission leaned against raising taxes.
"I don't see the votes, either," she said. "We still need to ring the bell. They're not thinking about the kids. They're not thinking about the students. They're not thinking about the school system. They're thinking about the taxpayers."
Conventional political wisdom says now is the best time to ask commissioners for a tax increase. Unlike elected bodies whose members have staggered terms, commissioners were all voted in as a bunch last year for a four-year stint. The thinking goes that voters will have forgotten about a tax hike passed this year when the next election rolls around.
Hixson Commissioner Marty Haynes, who leans against a school tax increase, isn't sure that theory is true.
"I think the public's well-informed and there's folks that keep track of things," Haynes said. "The taxpayers don't seem to be in the mood for a property tax increase."
Tim Boyd, the 62-year-old commissioner whose district includes Brainerd, Missionary Ridge and East Ridge, has known the 62-year-old schools superintendent since they were both 8 years old. Growing up, they belonged to the same East Ridge church, schools and Cub Scout pack. But despite their long acquaintance, Boyd will need a lot of convincing to back Smith's tax hike.
"I think it's a pretty ambitious request," Boyd said. "What are they going to do to show me they're spending money efficiently and effectively?"
Commissioner Randy Fairbanks is a definite no.
"I was a little taken aback by the amount he [Smith] put out there," Fairbanks said.
And no amount of convincing will get Ooltewah Commissioner Chester Bankston to raise property taxes.
"I just ran a campaign on no new taxes," Bankston said. "I don't think that I will [oppose it], I know I will."
The only type of tax that Bankston might support would be a "wheel tax," or fee on vehicles.
"It would get everybody -- not just property owners," he said. "I know people in my district would support a wheel tax before they would support a property tax."
Officials from the local teachers union and two nonprofit groups that support education like the idea of increasing school funding, but were still learning the details Friday.
Prior tax increases
* August 2005: 26-cent increase raised tax rate to $2.894 per $100 of assessed value to raise more than $16 million. Of that, 16 cents went to schools and 10 cents to general government.
* July 2007: 26-cent increase raised tax rate to $3.15/$100 to raise $17 million. Entire increase went to general government but included targeted revenue to replace Red Bank Middle and East Ridge Elementary schools.
Source: Newspaper archives
"Teachers do need the raise, there's no doubt about it," said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association. She said teachers would campaign for the proposal's approval through such means as phone calls and campaign signs.
"We've got to get on it right away," Hughes said. "I think the commission certainly could do more for education."
UnifiEd Executive Director Elizabeth Crews said, "Like most people who live in Hamilton County, we believe that to make our schools better we have to invest more resources. But those resources have to be invested wisely to make a difference. It's not just the money. It's making sure that the dollars are being spent in a way that gets results."
Dan Challener, president of the Public Education Foundation, said Smith has "been in the district for 30 years, so I'm sure he's been very thoughtful about this." Smith worked his way up from teacher to superintendent during that time.
Smith said some county commissioners have decided to oppose additional funding before they've seen the vision he's got for using the revenue to improve schools.
"I hope everybody has an open mind," he said. "I'm trying to think about what's best for our children in our community."
Smith and other superintendents from Tennessee's four large school districts are due to meet Gov. Bill Haslam in Nashville on Monday to press Haslam to make improvements to the Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula under which schools are funded.
If the BEP were to be fully funded, Hamilton County schools would receive an additional $13 million annually, school officials say. Hamilton County and other school districts have threatened to sue the state over what they say is inadequate BEP funding.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.