Though Hamilton County Schools leaders announced a balanced budget last week, the debate between the county's school board and county commission about the 2020 budget is not over.
Hamilton County Board of Education members discussed a revised version of the previously proposed 2020 budget on Thursday that removes the failed 34-cent property tax rate increase, reducing the request from $443 million to $410 million.
In the wake of the revision — which reduces requested new hires, teacher raises, special education supports and more — some county commissioners are concerned about its impact on teachers and potentially misleading wording shared by the school board.
District 6 Commissioner David Sharpe, who advocated for Superintendent Bryan Johnson's original budget, says the revised budget is disappointing.
"I got elected to support education through teachers and students and I think that we should do whatever we can to better prepare students for trades or higher education," he said Monday. "I think that the budget that was originally presented did that."
Sharpe said that he was especially disappointed by the school board having to reduce new hires, including special education teachers, in the updated budget.
"What's most frustrating is that the opposition didn't bring any solutions, it was just simply 'no,' and I don't think that's good enough," he said. "It's history repeating itself. I think the facilities part of improving education is a big issue but addressing that could take years. If we wait that long to improve classrooms, we run the risk of leaving another generation behind."
Those who opposed the tax raise are still not completely satisfied with what the board discussed on Thursday, even without the increase.
While District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin said he was pleased the board was able to still increase teacher pay in the new budget proposal, but the way the school board had been labeling the new budget was misleading.
"The school board saying that [the commission] cut their budget by $34 million is as ridiculous as the commission claiming we cut the taxpayer's bill by $34 million."
In a Facebook post on Friday, the Hamilton County Schools page posted graphics with a list of "cuts" made to the 2020 budget that included the phrase "cut budget by $33 million from $443 million to $410 million." The caption added that "because that budget was not approved, the district was forced to cut $33 million to create a balanced budget."
Chairwoman and District 7 Commissioner Sabrena Smedley echoed Martin's concerns about the new budget proposal being called a "cut," adding that she is disappointed that the teacher raise is only 2.5% of the 5% originally requested.
"I keep hearing about the cuts — the cuts, the cuts — but to me, I think the accurate terminology is that they didn't get the addition," Smedley said. "They started this year where they ended last year. We can't, by state law, cut their budget. So they started where they were plus $18.9 million in growth. If anything, they should be making additions, not cuts. Maybe not all the additions that they wanted to, but still nothing got 'cut.'"
County Mayor Jim Coppinger, who supported and built his proposed county budget around the district's original request, said that he was not "crying over spilled milk" and it was time to move forward.
"The teachers' raises are extremely important so that we can be competitive, and the kindergarten-3rd grade literacy program and some special education and post-secondary programs were removed, but it's not a total loss or a cut to the district," Coppinger said. "Unfortunately, it took something like this to really get the public engaged in the public education system, but they did."
Coppinger said that with next week's meeting between the school board and commission to discuss the school system's facility audit, and the board's process of voting on and proposing the revised budget, the earliest the commission could vote on the revised budget is July 31. Under state law, a version of the budget has to be approved by Aug. 31.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @sarahgtaylor.