WHAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE?
* Current Hamilton County Schools budget: $345 million
* Budget plus $13 million from full BEP funding: $358 million
* Budget plus $34 million from 40-cent local property tax increase: $379 million
* Budget plus $47 million from full BEP funding and local tax increase: $392 million
School Superintendent Rick Smith has laid his cards on the table: He wants Hamilton County to have the best public schools in the South, and he'd like to fund that vision with $47 million added to the district's current $345 million annual budget.
At least, an extra $47 million is what the Hamilton County Department of Education stands to take in annually if everything breaks its way.
Smith hopes to fund $34 million in improvements he unveiled March 19, including art and foreign language in the elementary grades, through a 40-cent property tax increase. The school district could see another $13 million annually if it prevails in a lawsuit it filed March 24 against Tennessee over the Basic Education Program (BEP), the formula the state uses to fund schools.
"All of that's theoretical," Smith said of the potential windfall.
The hoped-for money won't come easily.
A straw poll shows that most Hamilton County commissioners oppose what Lookout Valley Commissioner Joe Graham calls the "Rick Smith 40-cent tax increase." And the school district's decision to sue the state drew tsk-tsks from Gov. Bill Haslam, whose office said it would stop collaborative discussions, and House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who said increasing BEP funding would be like suing taxpayers for a tax increase.
But Smith doesn't plan to throw in the towel.
He said he's been in the community sharing his vision, attending three school faculty meetings and sitting in on an hour-long talk radio show last week, accompanied by East Brainerd school board member Donna Horn. He plans a series of community meetings.
Smith thinks there's time to build community support by mid-May, when the County Commission will consider the school district's budget.
"What I'm about right now is messaging the vision," he said. "I would hope the county commissioners would be open to hearing that vision."
While Smith had been hinting for months about adding new programs, the announcement of the 40-cent tax increase for $34 million in new programs took some people by surprise. One of those was Sandy Hughes, the president of the local teachers union, who quickly came out in support of it. Also caught unawares were leaders from two Chattanooga foundations that support education, UnifiEd and the Public Education Foundation.
Longtime Soddy-Daisy school board member Rhonda Thurman didn't hear of the proposal until two days before the board meeting, during a one-on-one talk with Smith.
"It came out of nowhere for me, especially 40 cents," said Thurman, who's opposed to the tax hike. Smith met individually with all nine board members during the week before the Thursday night meeting, she said.
Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch, who led the effort to sue the state over the BEP, said it's just a coincidence that the lawsuit was days after Smith unveiled his proposed $34 million budget increase.
"There was no timing involved in between the two," Welch said.
The lawsuit was filed the day after Smith and the superintendents of Tennessee's three other largest school districts had a closed-door meeting with Haslam. After meeting Haslam, Smith said he was "pleased with today's conversation." The next day, Hamilton County filed suit.
"This was not a Rick Smith decision [to sue]," Welch said. "The board had made that decision."
The school board on March 12 voted 8-1 to pass a motion by Welch that called for a lawsuit unless the governor presented a plan on March 23 endorsed by the leadership of the General Assembly to fund the BEP.
No one from the General Assembly came to the closed-door meeting, school district attorney Scott Bennett said.
"We knew the governor wants to try to help us out," Bennett said. "There was no one from the General Assembly that there. That was the most telling piece."
Haslam told the Times Free Press on Thursday that Hamilton County's lawsuit would end collaborative discusssions, and that he was surprised by it.
"And disappointed," the governor added. "Because I don't think that's how you solve problems. Because we really are making an effort to address that situation."
The state's BEP Review Committee has called on the state to add about $10,000 in pay per teacher and fund teachers' health insurance for 12 months, instead of the current 10 months. Fully funding the $4.03 billion BEP program could cost the state an estimated $500 million and possibly as much as $1 billion, according to the committee.
Bennett works with all seven Southeast Tennessee school districts that decided to sue: Hamilton, Bradley, McMinn, Marion, Grundy, Coffee and Polk counties. He said representing both small and large school districts made him a good candidate to bring suit when the matter was under discussions involving such groups as the Tennessee School Boards Association.
"I was the only lawyer that had a diverse client base," said Bennett, who's based in Chattanooga. "The last thing we wanted to do was make this look like small schools versus large schools."
Bennett said Welch has been calling school board members elsewhere in Tennessee to encourage them to join the lawsuit.
"I suspect that other boards will sign on in early to mid-April," Bennett said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.