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Hamilton County Schools board member Rhonda Thurman asks for more clarification on an item as the board goes over and updates policies during a school board meeting Thursday, July 11, 2019 at the Hamilton County Department of Education in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

This story was updated at 10:07 a.m. on Monday, July 15, 2019, to clarify the reference to "early post-secondary options" in the seventh paragraph and Hill's quote in the 14th paragraph about assisting students.

Hamilton County Schools is cutting the majority of proposed new positions, special education supports, stipends for teachers and teacher training, and a 5% teacher pay raise in its new proposed fiscal year 2020 budget.

Instead of Superintendent Bryan Johnson's "ambitious, but realistic" $443 million budget that the board approved in May, most board members say they will present a more conservative budget to the Hamilton County Commission this year.

The proposed $410 million general purpose operating budget is still $19 million more than FY 2019's $390 million budget though. Many of the "cuts" made in the revised proposed budget were to proposed new positions and initiatives, but in order to balance the budget, the district did make some cuts in some areas, district officials say.

Overall, the budget closely matches the final fiscal year 2019 general purpose operating budget, said Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg. The district is receiving $9 million in growth money from local taxes and expecting another $10 million in projected revenue.

Board member Joe Smith said it was important to note that many of the reported "cuts" were to desired things, not existing ones.

"You can't lose something you haven't got[ten]," Smith said. "Granted we're not getting these 300 positions, but we've never had them. Nobody's losing their jobs."

But Smith said he is worried about how the district will continue to improve without some of the additions in the original proposed budget — such as adding more reading interventionists, truancy officers, school counselors, social workers and investing in one-to-one student technology and increasing access to early post-secondary options.

"I think that the momentum and the morale that's in our schools all across the county is probably the highest it's ever been, everybody seems to be excited and encouraged about things that seem to be happening. They like what Dr. Johnson is doing and his vision," Smith said. "I just hope that this doesn't stop the train."

Some of the biggest changes to the previously proposed budget included:

  • Cutting 28 proposed reading interventionists for each elementary school
  • Reducing 12 college and career advisers from full-time to remain half-time in each high school
  • 16 in-school suspension monitors
  • four of nine new English as a second language teachers (the district would still have 96)
  • six of nine new assistant principal positions (the district would still have 92)
  • five of 10 new special education teachers
  • 15 of 30 new special education assistants (the district has 184)
  • five of 11 new art teachers
  • 14 new school counselors (the district would still have more than 100)
  • 15 new truancy officers
  • 15 new social workers (the district will have just 15 social workers)
  • 17 new maintenance personnel
  • five new bus monitors for the Opportunity Zone

 

 

The district will also be backpedaling on some of the teacher benefits agreed to in collaborative conferencing with the Hamilton County Education Association, the local teacher's union, this year. Instead of a 5% raise, teachers should expect a 2.5% raise, which will still cost the district about $6 million a year.

The district is honoring a change to the salary scale schedule, such as unfreezing certain step increases and consolidating the salary schedules into three classifications instead of five, Goldberg said.

District 6 board member Jenny Hill said the changes to the budget were "sobering" at a school board meeting Thursday night.

"Our strategic plan sets our priorities. It is deeply sobering to see $10 million cut out of a budget that was dedicated to accelerating student achievement. It is deeply disappointing to see $9 million cut out that would assist our students [with] what's next," Hill said.

She said that she has worked with Johnson and his administration to try to find other areas where the district could save, in order to implement some of the new initiatives in the district's proposed budget.

"I've thrown a million things against the wall," Hill said. "A lot of small things can add up to a big thing."

Hill and Smith both worried about how the district will implement some of its goals for supporting students' emotional needs as well as rolling out its new 'Code of Acceptable Behavior and Discipline.'

"We spent a lot of energy talking about the new code of conduct and to really implement that code, then its going to take a lot of support interventionists, counselors, social workers, that we're not going to have," Smith said. "I just don't know how effective we're going to be able to be implementing the new code of conduct without having the additional human resources that our budget would have allowed. I'm worried about that."

Goldberg said that the biggest cuts to actual existing budget items came in reducing the amount the district spends on stipends for teacher coaches or professional development for teachers from $5.8 million to $4.8 million in 2020. The district is also saving $25,000 thanks to a reduced debt service payment to the county in fiscal year 2020, and through reductions in employee health and life insurance costs.

A $400,000 "non-personnel contingency reserve" was also removed from Goldberg's department in the new proposed budget.

Regardless, the district will still spend more than $8.8 million on "unavoidable and contractual increases," according to budget documents, including:

  • $2.7 million toward salary step scale increases
  • $1.9 million in increased charter school fees
  • $1.2 million toward the new bus contract with First Student Inc.
  • and $1.4 million on funding for 42 special education assistants that are no longer covered by federal funding

That leaves $11 million of the $19 million increase for the board to play with — $7.25 million of which is eaten up by salary increases and staffing costs.

The board is still debating the use of about $1 million before it will move to vote on the budget. Currently, that $1 million is slated to help reduce general school instruction fees — for which more than $1.8 million was originally budgeted. But board members wonder if the $1 million could help fund some of the positions that are being cut.

Johnson shared his vision for that money with the board Thursday night.

"If you were going to ask for my half cent. I believe that reading interventionists are the most important thing," he said. Several board members, including Tucker McClendon, of District 8, and Kathy Lennon, of District 2, agreed.

Adding 28 reading interventionists would cost a little over $1 million, Goldberg said.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said she'd rather spend that money toward eliminating school fees and giving "a break to the taxpayer," but Smith, who has long been a proponent of eliminating school fees, told the Times Free Press he's conflicted.

"We have a tough decision to make. Do we make those school fees go away, which would help a lot of parents, or do we use that money to hire some reading interventionists?" Smith said.

Regardless, most school board members do not intend to go back and forth with the commission since it voted against a 34-cent property tax rate increase to fund the previously proposed funding increase.

McClendon said the board will take a balanced budget back to the county commission.

"It'll be a balanced budget," McClendon said. "Its sad that we can't invest more in our teachers, especially after how much they invest in our students but the reality is it's the place that we're in right now."

Hill said the community wanted to see increased support for public education this year.

"I believe our community as a whole believe that children matter. We are in this reality that the county commission has determined this is not the priority right now," she said at Thursday night's board meeting.

A date has not been set for when the board will vote on the new proposed budget. The budget must first be approved by the school board before being sent back to the commission.

The board is scheduled to meet for a budget work session on Thursday, July 18, according to Johnson, as well as for its regularly scheduled monthly meeting the same day.

Board members will then meet with county commissioners to discuss the budget and the upcoming — and long awaited — facilities audit report on July 23.

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

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