After a week of community forums to discuss preliminary plans for what to do with old, rundown school facilities and ahead of Monday's joint meeting with the Hamilton County Commission, the Hamilton County Board of Education met for its annual retreat this weekend to discuss its priorities and key issues for the coming year.
Here are some things that came up — and that you should watch for in 2020.
1. No more "finger pointing"
Ahead of Monday's joint meeting between the school board and county commission, school board Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, laid out his goals for the meeting to his colleagues Saturday morning.
"The goal for Monday night really is to say 'What do you folks value and what do we value?' and let's find some common ground," Wingate said. "We aren't going to spend time Monday night talking about our differences."
Wingate met with commission Chairman Randy Fairbanks, of District 1, and Mayor Jim Coppinger after the mayor announced the joint meeting last month. The meeting comes at the end of a year of contentious budget talks and debate over how to fund public education. Wingate emphasized that he wants to review the district's goals with commissioners, but board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, said she doesn't think the commission understands what the school district is trying to achieve.
"All they are really seeing from us and the school system is a bunch of data," she said "If I'm going to spend time at this meting, I want it to be productive I'm not going to spend time at this meeting that isn't productive and then it turns into a media frenzy and the public doesn't understand what we were trying to accomplish."
Wingate said the plan was not to talk about next year's budget or money at Monday night's meeting.
2. Continued facilities discussion
Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, said she has spent a lot of time thinking about the district's approach to its facilities plan, especially after five community meetings this week — at least two of which drew large crowds and turned into yelling matches.
"I don't think MGT [Consulting Group] should be the one who leads the next three community meetings [in January]. I think we need to take control of them," Hill said. "I've been very disappointed in what MGT considers community input, especially with what we value as community input. Bryan's team has really upped the bar in recent years."
Hill said she thinks the community wants to be involved in the process the district is undertaking to create a 10-year plan to tackle $1.36 billion in deferred maintenance, but she also doesn't believe that the community trusts the process.
In July, MGT revealed a preliminary report with recommendations including closing several schools, re-purposing some facilities and busing students to other parts of the community. This week, MGT held five community forums across the county, but school district representatives didn't field questions or provide information, leaving many in the community searching for answers that MGT could not provide.
"At the end of the day, MGT is going to leave us with our cold sterile data and we're going to have to figure out a way to do something that works that gets more of the community on board," Wingate said.
Hill presented a proposed plan to her colleagues to create a citizen's panel and replicate some of the work done when the county created the last large-scale facilities plan and audit in 1999.
Several of her colleagues approved of the plan, but cautioned that funding is still one of the biggest roadblocks and an area that hasn't been addressed yet when it comes to millions of dollars in deferred maintenance.
— School board agenda session on at 5 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 9, at Red Bank Middle School, 3701 Tom Weathers Drive
— Joint commission/school board meeting at 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 9, at Red Bank Middle School, 3701 Tom Weathers Drive
— School board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 12, at Hamilton County Department of Education, 3074 Hickory Valley Road
3. Potential Superintendent contract renewal
Superintendent Bryan Johnson's current contract is slated to end in 2021. In September, after state testing results came out and showed just how much academic achievement has improved under Johnson's leadership, board member Joe Smith, of District 3, moved to extend Johnson's contract at a school board meeting.
Under Tennessee state law, school boards cannot extended a superintendent's contract, but must renew it, according to Hamilton County Schools attorney Scott Bennett.
Since that September meeting, Bennett said he has met with Johnson to go over things that Johnson might want to include or change in a new contract, including how bonuses are awarded, what metrics he is evaluated against and whether he can get paid for speaking engagements or not — currently he cannot.
"In terms of timeline, I think we are going to try to present something to the board to act on pretty quickly probably in January for you to mull over and vote on in February," Bennett said, though any changes wouldn't be effective until July 1 per state law.
Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, did say he was concerned about pay increases, especially since the superintendent is already eligible for any pay increase that the district's certified employees receive. Johnson's pay has increased from his starting base salary of about $197,000 to more than $220,000 since he was hired in July 2017.
"I am concerned about the rank-and-file teachers who have not had a raise and if the leader gets a raise and they haven't, I'm concerned about what they will think about that," Highlander said.
Some board members have expressed concerns about losing Johnson after a property tax rate increase to provide more funding to public schools was shot down by the commission this summer, and Bennett said the current contract doesn't prevent Johnson from leaving.
If a new contract is approved, Bennett said it would likely extend Johnson's tenure in Hamilton County Schools to 2024.