Ayanna Abdul drizzles icing onto Thursday's culinary arts class assignment of cinnamon rolls in the Ooltewah High School vocational class led by Chef Steve Knopfke. Students from left are Abdul, Natalie Ohlsson, Falon Sampley and Sean Biro.
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Santiago Ruiz holds a 3D character he printed in Karen Hayes' Engineering class at Ooltewah High School. Vocational classes include a culinary arts class and engineering class featuring 3D printing.

Year after year a chorus of school leaders says education funding in Hamilton County needs a boost.

After years of those requests going unanswered, the Hamilton County Department of Education plans to take a different approach this budget season. Instead of just asking for a $24 million increase in revenue, the school system plans to tie the request for additional funding to measurable returns.

The proposed budget for fiscal year 2017, which starts July 1, has three main priorities: workforce and college readiness, literacy across the curriculum, and improving the district's lowest-performing schools.

And in the next three years, the school system is setting the goal of:

- Increasing the number of students graduating with an industry certification from 80 students annually to at least 450

- Improving the percent of students reading on grade level in grades 3-8 from about 45 percent to 60 percent

- Boosting the district's average ACT score from below 19 to 21, which is needed to earn the Hope Scholarship

School board Chairman Jonathan Welch said everyone from the school board to the Hamilton County Commission and the community has voiced concerns over the school system's low reading scores and need for more vocational education.

"This budget places those things as priorities," Welch said. "This is a step in the right direction. We listened to the community and added measurable goals to these priorities."

Last year, then-Superintendent Rick Smith crisscrossed the county advocating for a $34 million increase to the school system's budget, which would have about a 40-cent property tax increase. Smith said the additional funding would allow the school system to raise teacher salaries, increase technology and provide things like art and foreign language classes in elementary grades.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger denied that request, calling a property tax increase a last resort. The county hasn't had a property-tax increase in eight years.

Coppinger did not comment Thursday morning about the expected request from the school board for increased funding, which would require raising property taxes about 28 cents.

But last month he told the Times Free Press education is the most important thing the county considers during budget season, and mentioned that funding for education is nearing a "last resort" situation. He added that if the school board does formally request additional funding this year, he hopes it will be specific about how the funds will be used.

School leaders hope this year's proposed budget will do just that, as it details increased funding for things like an additional teacher at each elementary school to help improve literacy rates, increased teacher support and resources, and additional technology and infrastructure in high schools to help prepare students for the work force.

In the district's priority or iZone schools — the five lowest-performing schools in Hamilton County — the district hopes increased funding will help with teacher recruitment and access to high-quality instruction and things like telemedicine and a clinic-in-school program.

But many Hamilton County Board of Education members voiced a lack of confidence Thursday night in the school system's top leaders after the budget was presented to them, saying increased funding will not improve the school system unless changes are made in the central office.

School board member Greg Martin questioned if the additional funding and proposed changes will allow the school system to meet the new goals, or if district leaders will continue working the same way they have for years without much result.

Acting Superintendent Kirk Kelly said he thinks the funding will bring a change.

"I think it's going to provide us with the resources that we need to give schools the autonomy to grow," he said.

School board member Steve Highlander said adding reading interventionists to a school is a huge asset, and mentioned the idea of bringing in retired teachers or volunteers.

He said he's concerned by the district's top-down approach to supporting schools, which he claimed is undermining the hard work of classroom teachers.

School board member Karitsa Mosely agreed, and wanted to clarify that the additional teachers proposed in the budget will be school based, and that principals would have the say in how and where they are used.

School board member Rhonda Thurman, who has been an outspoken critic of the district's reading curriculum for years, said more needs to happen within the school system than adding teachers to improve literacy.

"You can talk about hiring all the people that you want to, but as long as we keep teaching people to read this way it's not going to work," Thurman said. "We need to get a plan that we know works."

The school board will vote next week whether or not to approve the proposed budget. If they vote to approve it, the budget will be formally presented to Coppinger and the Hamilton County Commission, which funds the school system.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.