Hamilton County school board members say it's 'back to the drawing board' if commission doesn't pass budget

Hamilton County school board members say it's 'back to the drawing board' if commission doesn't pass budget

June 24th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local Regional News

Some Hamilton County school board members are waiting hopefully, others anxiously, to see what the outcome will be at the Hamilton County Commission Wednesday.

The commission is slated to vote on Mayor Jim Coppinger's proposed fiscal year 2020 budget and the 34-cent proposed property tax rate increase for public education that comes with it.

Though there's been much speculation since Coppinger introduced his budget at the beginning of the month, it's still unclear which way the vote will go.

Some commissioners have been on board with the school district's request for $34 million in additional funding since Superintendent Bryan Johnson unveiled it, and others have been strongly opposed. Some have stayed mum on how they plan to vote.

Hamilton County District 2 School Board member Kathy Lennon is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District 2 School Board member Kathy...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter /Times Free Press.

Regardless, District 2 board member Kathy Lennon said she's hopeful.

"After last week, I feel like our community is supporting this ... I feel like everyone is behind it," she said. "I have a strong feeling that our commissioners are going to support it because this is what our community wants. It's what's right for our students, it's what's right for our schools, it's what's right. They know the value of public education ... I think they are weighing all their options."

Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, whose commission counterpart David Sharpe has been advocating in favor of the proposed budget for weeks, said she also hopes the budget will pass.

If it doesn't, Hill said, the community — not just the commission or the school board — will have some tough questions to answer.

"I think that if the mayor's budget for Hamilton County doesn't pass, we as a community are going to have some hard questions in front of us about our shared vision for our county; and if in fact we do have a shared vision for our county," Hill said. "If this budget doesn't pass, I think it begs the question: how do we get on the same page on what we want for Hamilton County."

Jenny Hill

Jenny Hill

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Hill said she isn't willing to give up on many of the goals outlined on both the district's strategic plan and budget request, such as providing more inclusive opportunities for special education students and increasing social-emotional support and student achievement.

Brent Goldberg, chief business officer for the district, has repeatedly said that the district does not have another budget to present if the current one, approved by the school board on May 9, does not pass.

Next steps for the district would vary greatly depending on Wednesday's outcome.

"We would be on a continuation budget until such time that we received direction from the school board," Goldberg said.

Several board members including Tucker McClendon, of District 8; Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4; and chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, said it would be back to the drawing board.

"They'll send it back to us and they could say 'Send us a balanced budget or bring us back a modified budget,'" District 9 board member Steve Highlander said.

That would mean the board could wind up having to cut $34 million of its proposed FY 2020 budget.

Hamilton County District 8 School Board member Tucker McClendon is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County District 8 School Board member Tucker...

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

McClendon said that could look a lot of different ways.

"We'd be looking at not giving teachers a 5% raise, not getting arts into every elementary school, still having school fees and not giving the students of Hamilton County an opportunity to have five post-secondary courses," he said. "It's just one of those things; it just kind of depends on what we decide as a board."

Highlander said the district needs to properly compensate teachers and District 3 board member Joe Smith agrees.

"I think we just have to pay the teachers. Our teachers to me are the most underpaid, under-respected profession anywhere," Smith said.

But the district is also on the hook by the state Department of Education for its special education practices and must invest several million dollars there, as well.

"We have to do better with our special education funding, and the state is going to hold us t0 that, we can't go back on that," Robinson said. "I do think that if it isn't supported, we'll have to come back to the drawing board as a district and the community will be disappointed."

McClendon added that the district does not need to submit a budget to the state until September 1, and it could stay on a continuation budget until then in order to provide commissioners with "more information" as some have asked for.

"We don't have to have a budget until September 1. We can hold it until the results come out for the facilities audit and the state testing results," he said. "They have said from the dais that's what they want to see."

Rhonda Thurman

Rhonda Thurman

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Commissioners including Tim Boyd, McClendon's District 8 counterpart, have said they'd like to see more increases in student achievement before increasing funding for the district, and many have emphasized the anticipated capital needs that will likely result from the district's $500,000 facilities audit it is now undergoing.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said she wouldn't be surprised if the commission sends the budget back to the school board.

"I told [them ]the night we passed this budget, don't be celebrating too soon, we'll be getting this back," Thurman said.

The county commission is expected to vote during its regular commission meeting at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 26 in the commission chambers of the Hamilton County Courthouse, 625 Georgia Ave.

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


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