A request by Hamilton County Schools' superintendent for an additional $34 million for operating costs in the district's proposed budget was met Tuesday with reservations from some commissioners.
Bryan Johnson's $443 million budget includes an ask for $34 million on top of the district's anticipated $9 million in growth dollars, but some commissioners think that's too much.
"You've shown increases all across the board and you've done every bit of that with funding you have. You stayed within your means," District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said. "I want to see more moving forward before I go back to my citizens and ask them for a tax increase. I think it's way early and way too much funding."
Boyd grilled the superintendent and his team on the district's per-pupil spending and academic outcomes compared to surrounding districts. He questioned why Hamilton County spends more and wants to raise teacher pay while students still don't perform as well as those in other counties.
"How do you explain your argument that we're paying teachers less than their counterparts, especially when we start talking about dollars per student? The question there is whether that's administration costs or teacher salaries?" Boyd asked.
He told Johnson that he felt the district had "adequate" funding.
Tennessee school districts spend an average of $10,340.26 per pupil, according to the Tennessee Department of Education's 2019 State Report Card. Last year, Hamilton County spent $10,417.90 according to the state report card.
Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools both spent significantly more per student, but Knox County spent $9,555.56 per pupil in 2018-19, according to the report card.
Since Johnson unveiled the proposed budget on April 25, some commissioners have already been outspoken about the request for additional funding — which coupled with Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's request could lead to a 49-cent property tax rate increase.
Johnson told commissioners Tuesday that it was a choice between maintaining the status quo or moving the school district forward.
"I'm coming to you all as the selected leader saying, 'We're here, and if you want to go there this is what you need to do,'" he said. "Here's the deal, if you don't want to go there, that's fine — not fine by me, but that's fine. That's a choice. Y'all have a decision to make. That's where this decision has to be. It's really about the future of our community."
Johnson and his team emphasized the growth that the district has seen in the past year, highlighted by improved Tennessee Value-Added Assessment scores that measure student achievement growth.
Boyd said he is also worried about upcoming capital costs that are not included in the proposed budget. The district expects to receive results and recommendations from MGT Consulting this July. The firm has been conducting a $500,000 facilities assessment of all the district's buildings this spring, and Johnson anticipates those recommendations might include closing schools and rezoning students.
District 3 Commissioner Greg Martin said the budget might have been more welcome had it included some of those capital costs and projects, despite the $110 million the county just allocated to the district for capital projects in 2017.
Commissioners also were concerned about the number of new positions that are included in the FY2020 budget.
Commissioner Warren Mackey, of District 4, asked Johnson to explain how many of those positions were teachers versus support staff outside of the classroom.
"One of the comments I've heard, they question the budget because they say you're going to bring too many non-teachers into the system, can you clear this up?" Mackey asked.
UPCOMING PUBLIC MEETINGS
Some Hamilton County commissioners are holding public meetings to discuss the FY2020 budget. Here’s a list of upcoming meetings.
› May 16 at 7 p.m.: District 8/East Ridge community meeting with Commissioner Tim Boyd at East Ridge Community Center, 1517 Tombras Ave.
› May 20 at 6 p.m.: District 2 community meeting with Commissioner Chip Baker and school board member Kathy Lennon at Signal Mountain/Middle High School, 2650 Sam Powell Dr.
Johnson, along with the district's Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg, broke down the 354 proposed positions, which include 14 social counselors, 10 social workers, 10 special education teachers, 15 truancy officers and a variety of other education assistants, college and career advisers and English as a second language teachers.
It also includes nine new assistant principals based on the district's new base staffing model, a new director position for the Opportunity Zone and positions for the new Office of Innovation and Choice.
Commissioner David Sharpe, of District 6, has been consistently outspoken in favor of Johnson's budget. He commended the district and the priorities included in it.
"I've heard a couple different arguments as to why we shouldn't invest in schools," Sharpe said. "One of which is the Department of Education needs to show improvements before we invest in schools and another one is, Hamilton County schools are improving, so why should we invest in them?"
"The two arguments kind of contradict each other. It's easy for us to sit here and pick apart your budget and, frankly, that's what the commission is supposed to do. Dr. Johnson has been tasked, along with the board, to spend it best," Sharpe added. "I think the two put together a very specific, strategic budget that addresses specific needs strategically to get us the most bang for our buck."
Several Hamilton County commissioners are holding public meetings in the coming weeks to discuss the budget. Coppinger is slated to present his proposed budget to the commission on June 5.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.