Hamilton County Schools' budget requests spark challenges

Hamilton County Schools' budget requests spark challenges

May 21st, 2015 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Commissioners Warren Mackey, left, and Marty Haynes confer as Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith speaks to the Hamilton County Commission.

Photo by Angela Lewis Foster /Times Free Press.

Enhancements requested in next year's school budget

* 5 percent employee salary and benefit increase: $11 million
* Funding art teachers in all elementary grades: $2.2 million
* Hiring foreign language teachers in all elementary grades: $2.2 million
* Educational technology and infrastructure support: $3.8 million
* Instructional resources, teacher and administration support: $2 million
* Opening new schools: $1 million
* Capital improvements: $2 million
* Increased block grants to individual schools: $1 million
* Differentiated urban services and support: $1 million
* Expanded graduation options: $1 million
Total: $27.2 million
Source: Hamilton County Department of Education


Like Abraham Lincoln giving his famously brief Gettysburg Address, it took less than five minutes for Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith to make his pitch Wednesday afternoon for a $34 million annual school budget increase to the County Commission, which controls the school district's purse strings.

"Chattanooga can be the smartest city in the South," said Smith, who since March has presented his vision to bring art and foreign language classes to the elementary grades, increase teachers' pay and benefits by 5 percent, buy up-to-date technology and make other improvements.

Gettysburg gave way to a gritty discussion of dollar amounts and about 90 minutes of questions, opinions and sometimes heated back-and-forth comments from Smith, the nine commissioners and county Mayor Jim Coppinger.

Smith's proposed $379 million budget, $34 million higher than the current year, could require a 40-cent property tax increase that would add $150 annually to the tax bill of a $150,000 home. Coppinger wouldn't say Wednesday whether he'll propose a boost in school funding when he unveils the school's proposed budget on June 2 that the nine commissioners will vote up or down.

Some of the most pointed questions came from someone Smith has known since second grade: Commissioner Tim Boyd, an East Ridge resident.

"I'm just not convinced that the monies requested will have the return that I'm looking for," said Boyd, who questioned, among other things, the 5 percent increase in salary and benefits for all of the district's roughly 6,000 employees, which would cost an additional $11 million annually.

"That's not going to improve the academic scores of one child," Boyd said. He told Smith that Hamilton County students' performances on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test were "not good. They're simply not good."

Smith replied that, without a pay increase, he's at risk of losing young teachers like the 53 he met with Friday to thank them for their first year of service.

"They are actually serving in our most challenged, difficult urban schools," Smith said. He also defended the increase for principals, saying their leadership is fundamental to keeping good teachers.

Smith and Boyd also differed over cafeteria workers, with Boyd saying that food service should be contracted out, while the superintendent defended a pay and benefits increase for those employees.

"They're our least-paid employees," Smith said.

Inner-city commissioners non-committal

The two commissioners with the most inner-city schools in their districts didn't come out in favor of the budget increase -- but didn't rule it out, either.

"I'm not there, yet," Alton Park Commissioner Warren Mackey said.

However, Mackey praised the half dozen urban school principals who spoke at a recent forum in South Chattanooga. "They are doing an incredible job of getting those kids up to speed," he said.

Longtime Brainerd Commissioner Greg Beck reminisced about the past school tax increases that he said were passed after school and county officials met and hashed out the details. He suggested that the school system was not doing enough in his district, giving as an example a large piece of plaster that he said is ready to fall from the cafeteria ceiling at Brainerd High School.

"I am supportive of the schools, but give me something to support," Beck said. "Give me something that I can say to my constituents -- this is why."

Smith agreed that it may be time for the school board and county commission to hold a joint meeting.

Lookout Valley Commissioner Joe Graham had a back-and-forth with the superintendent over fund balances, or savings.

Graham has accused the school district of "hoarding" money with a fund balance of $49 million, which he says should be put toward the classrooms. Smith fired back and said the school district's savings is about 9 percent of its total budget compared to the county's $112 million fund balance, which Smith said is about 57 percent of its total budget.

"What does our fund balance have to do with anything?" Graham asked.

"I would take any of your fund balance that you would like to contribute to public education," Smith said, drawing applause from school supporters in the audience, including school administrators, school board members and principals who came to watch the hearing.

Coppinger defended the county's fund balance toward the end of the meeting, saying the county's fiscal conservatism and AAA bond rating has "saved this county millions of dollars."

"No one's calling into question the importance of education," Coppinger said, adding "a $34 million request is extremely challenging."

Seniors: Don't raise taxes

Hixson Commissioner Marty Haynes said the school district was asking for money to fund things that kids used to learn at home, at church or from civic clubs.

Whatever the outcome, Haynes recommended that everyone "go to a school and read" and he "called out" his church, Stuart Heights Baptist, for not doing enough to help nearby schools.

"We don't do a good enough job of reaching out," Haynes said.

East Brainerd Commissioner Sabrena Smedley-Turner said she agreed with Smith's vision.

"My problem is approaching it through a property tax increase," she said. "I have been inundated with calls from the senior population in my district asking, 'Please don't raise [taxes].'"

Soddy-Daisy Commissioner Randy Fairbanks and Ooltewah Commissioner Chester Bankston each said they were definitely opposed to Smith's budget increase in March when Smith first unveiled it. Neither stated their position Wednesday, though Fairbanks praised Smith, who has presented his vision at 33 meetings with the public and schools personnel, for putting in the hard work to tour the county to make his case.

"I just want to thank you, Mr. Superintendent," Fairbanks said. "I'm a Rick Smith fan. I'm a school fan."

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