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Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during the Opportunity Zone Community Celebration Phase II at Howard School on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Parents, school faculty and community members gathered to note the accomplishments of the Opportunity Zone schools.

NEW POSITIONS ADDED

> English language learner teacher

> Truancy officer for The Howard School

> English language learner lead teacher/coach

> Newcomer Center coordinator for The Howard School

>Full-time equity clerical assistant

> 2 behavior support specialists

> IT help desk technician

> Nurse

> Guidance counselor

> Alternative school teacher for Brainerd High

> In-school suspension monitor for Brainerd High

Tempers flared as the school board approved a dozen new positions including more truancy officers, English as a second language teachers and two district behavior coaches Thursday night.

Many of the positions, which were not part of the original budget the board approved last summer, will serve Howard and Brainerd high schools and other inner-city schools or schools that fall into the district's Opportunity Zone.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman, who represents areas including Sale Creek and Soddy-Daisy, said that wasn't fair.

"You cut funding in some areas and provide it in other areas, I just have a problem with that," Thurman said. "It's amazing how we find money when we want it; $390,000 just falls out of the sky."

Thurman said she knows schools in her district have lost teachers because there wasn't enough funding. She added that all areas of the district have needs and don't always get additional support.

Brainerd and Howard high schools both already have truancy officers and Thursday's vote added a second officer to Howard. The cost at mid-year for the new truancy officer is $33,741.

Superintendent Bryan Johnson acknowledged that some schools have positions that others don't based on need. The district is currently working aggressively to address how many students are chronically missing school because it is a new accountability metric under the state's Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan.

"One of our accountability metrics as a school system is we have to address truancy as a system," Johnson said. "Right now our social workers are engaged in truancy work but they really need to be doing social work. When we look at Brainerd and Howard, it's going to hurt our school system. You have roughly 50 percent of the kids that are missing 18 days or more."

Brainerd High had some of the most dismal attendance rates in the district last school year, with more than 55 percent of students missing 18 days or more of school — roughly 10 percent of the entire school year.

Approximately 17 social workers across the district are working full-time to address attendance, though their roles typically encompass more than attendance strategies.

"What we are trying to do is triage because we can't address it all," Johnson said. "We are elevating and trying to put strategies in place to make sure those students are in school."

Thurman held firm though.

"There are schools outside the Opportunity Zone," she said. "And they are feeling forgotten."

Several board members also criticized Johnson's team for hiding the added positions in the board's consent agenda. The agenda included a more-than-100-page booklet looking at the budget mid-year and listed the 11 added positions on the final page.

"In the 5-plus years I've been on the board, we normally listed the positions and show it to us individually," said District 9 board member Steve Highlander. "I'm not saying they're not needed though, they very well may be."

The new positions total about $390,000, but they were funded through savings and do not put the district over budget at this time, said Chief Financial Officer Christie Jordan.

The savings came from salary costs and retirement incentives, Jordan said. The district initially budgeted more than was paid out in Johnson's retirement incentives, announced last February.

District 3 board member Joe Smith praised the addition of more truancy officers, but echoed Thurman's concerns about how the expenditures were introduced to board members.

"I want to trust our superintendent and our staff that they are going to lead us in the right direction," Smith said. "I am pleased that we are adding another truancy person, it's much needed. I would encourage those folks to really work closely with the juvenile court because I hear some frustrations."

According to district officials, the new positions have not yet been filled. Job descriptions have already been posted, pending board approval.

The board also approved a truancy officer/social worker position to serve Lakeside Academy, Tommy F. Brown Academy and Red Bank Middle School, paid for through federal grant funds.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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