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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Superintendent Bryan Johnson, left, and Hamilton County District 7 school board member and chairman Joe Wingate right, listen as Hamilton County Education Association President Jeanette Omarkhail addresses the school board during a meeting in the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, July 18, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

CORRECTION: This story was updated Friday, July 19, 2019, at 8:34 a.m. to clarify a quote from District 8 board member Tucker McClendon.

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Hamilton County Board of Education members neither officially shot down nor endorsed a proposal to cut a proposed 2.5% teacher pay raise from this year's budget to fund support positions at a budget work session Thursday night.

Few board members had anything to say regarding the idea, which was introduced by District 8 board member Tucker McClendon, and Superintendent Bryan Johnson said it was not his place to make that decision for the board.

The plan would cut a proposed 2.5% pay raise — which was a 5% bump in the district's original proposed budget earlier this year — from the FY 2020 budget.

Instead, McClendon proposed the district use up to $8 million in its fund balance to give teachers a one-time bonus of about $1,500 and use the $6 million slated to cover the pay raises to hire more support staff, including five more special education teachers, 15 special education assistants, 28 reading interventionists, full-time college and career advisers, art teachers and ESL teachers.

"There's no one on this board that doesn't want to pay teachers more, but this is the position we are in and it is an option," McClendon said.

The district will end the year with at least $36-37 million in its fund balance, according to Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg. That would leave enough funds to cover a bonus, McClendon said.

McClendon later emphasized that even if the 2.5% pay raise was kept in the budget, he hoped to find a way to use some of the surplus general fund balance to give teachers a one-time bonus as well.

District 1 board member Rhonda Thurman did say she was against using the fund balance to cover what should be recurring expenses — but also noted that she is against across-the-board raises.

"This does not get us where we need to be. We started this conversation, when we started working on this budget, talking about our teachers and how the salaries of our teachers was less than counties around us — this does nothing to help this situation," Thurman said. "Next year, if the counties around us take the money that the state gave us to fund teacher raises, it will make our problem even worse."

School system Chief Talent Officer Keith Fogleman said that a $1,500 bonus would actually be a larger increase than what about 60% of Hamilton County teachers will see with a 2.5% raise — though the bonus would not be a base salary increase.

Teachers will still receive their regularly scheduled step increases based on the salary schedule regardless of what the board decides, which Fogleman noted is on average about $850.

District 9 board member Steve Highlander said that the district had to give teachers at least a 2.5% raise, if not more, though he declined to say whether that was negotiable for him to sign a budget.

Teachers have rallied since the board got a peek at the revised budget put together by Johnson and his team last week and discussed it further Monday night. Some teachers have said they would prefer the extra resources and support positions included in the initial budget over a raise and others have said 2.5% is not enough.

McClendon said he had heard from teachers more in the past day than he ever had before.

District 3 board member Joe Smith said that he had also heard from a lot of teachers, both for and against the proposal. He pushed Johnson and his staff to share their position.

Johnson emphasized that teacher compensation was one of two priorities in the district's budget cycle.

"Hearing from teachers, they obviously deserve the compensation. Teachers are in it because really they care about children and it's being torn between the two," Johnson said. "It's really the board decision. Absolutely the board can, but regardless, it's a stop-gap measure. Regardless, there are many things that were in the proposed budget that will go unfunded."

President Jeanette Omarkhail of the Hamilton County Education Association, the local teachers union, was joined by several members of the district's collaborative conferencing team at the meeting.

She addressed the board and said that teachers could not forgo a raise this year.

"Teachers cannot be asked to forgo a more competitive pay scale. The districts competing with us for the best and brightest educators are improving their pay scales. Our students need the best and brightest in front of them every day in Hamilton County," Omarkhail said. "A salary increase cannot be removed from the pay scale while money appropriated from the fund balance cannot be guaranteed to be added to the scale at a later time. We also cannot put a financial plan in place that does not protect the monetary compensation a teacher receives."

Omarkhail noted that the collaborative conferencing team must meet again to renegotiate parts of its contract that were contingent on the original budget's approval.

That hasn't happened yet, but the team has a meeting scheduled for Friday morning, she said.

Though school districts are required to participate in collaborative conferencing, they are not legally required to come to an agreement or accept a memorandum of understanding, under Tennessee state law.

Members of the collaborative conferencing team declined to comment after the board meeting Thursday, but did emphasize that there are many options on the table and the team needs to come together and find a compromise.

McClendon said he wasn't sure if his proposal is a viable option. He said it works financially, but he hopes to hear from teachers in the coming days as the board continues to grapple with the budget.

The board is slated to vote on a budget proposal on July 25, but the district and the county are both only required to approve a budget by Aug. 31.

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

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