Earlier this year, a group of business and community leaders compiled a 69-page report detailing a handful of strategies Hamilton County Schools could implement to improve efficiency and boost student outcomes.
"We absolutely believe there are ways to make the school system more efficient," David Eichenthal, a member of the group and managing director at the PFM Group, said Thursday.
Speaking to a group of downtown Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce members, Eichenthal said the community must improve education in Hamilton County, as many kids are not receiving the educations they deserve. But the report alone will not make a difference, he added, and will bring a change only if its recommendations are owned by county officials, the school district and board, along with the community.
The report recommends that the district:
- Reduce the number of schools and teachers to boost efficiency and student outcomes.
- Increase teacher and principal salaries with savings from the consolidation of schools and reduction in staff, and align teacher compensation to quality.
- Improve accountability by the county hiring two full-time performance auditors and the district employing a chief information officer, chief operating officer and a chief talent officer.
- Establish a new tax dedicated to schools infrastructure, tech and innovation;
- Make the district a part of the planning commission approval process.
The savings from consolidation would help free up savings for the district to spend on teacher quality and reduce the concentration of poverty in certain schools, the report states.
Eichenthal said many across the county are hesitant to invest in the county's school system, believing the money will be wasted. But instead, the report concludes the district's central office is understaffed and operating on a very lean budget.
"To unlock the significant savings we think are there, there has to be new investment [in the school district,]" he said. " I don't think the school system has had the ability to effectively make the case for the need for more funding."
Shelia Boyington, who also worked on the committee and is the co-founder of Thinking Media, said it's a problem the school system does not have a long-term plan and the district's leaders are stretched too thin to be able to think strategically.
The district could greatly benefit from establishing a "C-Suite," Boyington said, which would involve hiring a chief information officer, chief operating officer and a chief talent officer. A lot of the people working in the central office have a background in education and not specific training in things, such as human resources, business and management, she said, arguing the district could benefit from adding people trained in those fields.
But she applauded the district for allowing the group access and the ability to analyze how things are operating.
Moving forward, Boyington said, the district must be able to show results, as it will help build confidence and show that investments are being used to improve outcomes. She encouraged the business leaders gathered to be involved advocating for a better public school system.
"The school system is creating the product and you are the receivers of that product," she said. "You are their customer."
Kim White, another member of the group and president of River City Co., said the report won't be effective or make a change unless it's implemented in full. But, she admitted, that won't be easy.
"You start talking about school consolidation and it's tough," she noted.
But Chattanooga has proven in the past that it is capable of developing a plan as a community and implementing it, she said, referencing the revitalization of downtown.
White said she hopes the report becomes a part of the new district Superintendent Bryan Johnson's game plan.
"We want to be advocates for you," White said about Johnson and the school system.
School budget working group members:
› Valorie Armstrong, president of Tennessee American Water
› Dane Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media
› Sheila Boyington, co-founder of Thinking Media
› Larry Buie, general manager at Chattanooga Gas Con
› Nick Decosimo, managing shareholder at Elliott Davis Decosimo
› David Eichenthal, managing director at the PFM Group
› James Haley, chairman of Miller & Martin
› Tim Kelly, owner of Kelly Auto
› Michael Lebovitz, executive vice president of CBL & Associates Properties
› Dana Perry, shareholder at Chambliss Law
› Kim White, president of River City Co.