Community members speak out about more funding for schools at Hamilton County Commission meeting

Community members speak out about more funding for schools at Hamilton County Commission meeting

Some say 'money is not the answer'

May 15th, 2019 by Meghan Mangrum in Local - Breaking News

The Hamilton County Commission meets in the County Commission assembly room at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

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

Updated at 4:16 p.m. on Wednesday, May 15, 2019, to add brackets around "he" in Hampton's quote about why he ran for school board.

Community members went before the Hamilton County Commission on Wednesday to weigh in on a proposed school budget that could mean a tax increase for residents.

The budget, presented this week by Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his staff, includes a $34 million increase funding as part of the overall $443 million. It includes a 5% pay bump for teachers, more than 350 new positions such as counselors, social workers and truancy officers and increased funding for technology.

Since it was unveiled, it has received mixed reaction. Wednesday's commission meeting was no different.

Dr. Allen Coffman, of Highland Pediatrics in Hixson and a parent of a Signal Mountain student, said he hopes the commission will vote for the budget increase.

"I want to encourage you to approve Dr. Bryan Johnson's budget for this year," Coffman said. "I believe, as a parent and as a professional pediatrician who takes care of children with academic challenges that this budget pragmatically and effectively addresses issues for children with academic needs."

But others disagreed, saying schools don't need more taxpayer dollars.

"More money does not work. We have poured money into our schools, we have poured money into these failing schools and it has not worked," said Patrick Hampton, vice president of community engagement for Hamilton Flourishing, a new conservative nonprofit think tank. "What does work? The answer is not more money, the answer is consolidation and us being more fiscally responsible with what we have."

In 2014, Hampton ran for school board "because of the failure that [he] saw the school system doing to our young black boys," he said. He ultimately lost the race to current board member Karitsa Mosley Jones.

Hamilton Flourishing, which launched in 2018, organized a group of supporters and concerned property owners for the meeting Wednesday.

Brendan Jennings, president of the Chattanooga Tea Party, echoed Hampton's thoughts.

"I'd like to point out that while money is important it's caring attitude, it's people that ultimately make the difference in our schools," Jennings said. "I know it's easy to say that more money, by golly, we're doing something. But that something has to carry a certain amount of accountability."

"Over the years, the taxpayers of Hamilton County have seen promises before that have not necessarily been kept when we increase the budget for education," he added.

Commissioner Tim Boyd, of District 8, reaffirmed his opposition to Johnson's budget. Boyd has said he supports Johnson but has not seen enough positive results from changes in the school district to support a budget increase.

"The budget that was presented [Tuesday] was a hope for change budget," Boyd said. "The [district] is going to have to show me more than 18 months of improvements before I'm going to believe it."

The district's proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 was presented to commissioners at a joint workshop Tuesday morning. While some commissioners spoke out initially against the budget, others are openly weighing the decision.

At a community meeting Tuesday night, Commissioner Chip Baker, of District 2, didn't provide a straight answer when asked by a constituent if he'd vote in favor of the budget.

Baker did say he'd vote for it, "but not in its entirety," while acknowledging the need to "bring his colleagues along" when considering what the district could get to keep moving forward.

When questioned by Commissioner Warren Mackey, of District 4, on Tuesday, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said there are improvements happening in the school system and the community should continue to support it.

"There are success stories in every single one of these schools," Coppinger said. "I'd remind the public, particular taxpayers who are paying for our young people's education, that you're making a difference."

Sheriff Jim Hammond has also requested an additional $5 million in his budget in order to raise officer salaries, among other initiatives.

The schools budget coupled with the county government and Coppinger's request could lead to a potential 49-cent property tax rate increase.

Many of the commissioners are holding public meetings in the coming weeks, to discuss the budget. The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce has also distributed a survey to its members regarding the potential tax increase, as some prominent business leaders have already spoken out in favor of the school district's efforts.

"As issues critical to the progress of Chattanooga/Hamilton County arise, it is imperative that our public policy efforts reflect the priorities of our membership," said Chris Gobble, senior director of public policy for the Chamber, in an email.

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