Weeks ahead of Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's 2020 budget proposal, a majority of local leaders say they support a property tax increase to pay for a $34 million increase for local schools, as requested by Superintendent Bryan Johnson.
Of the 81 civic, business and government leaders who completed the Power Poll survey, 73% consider a property tax increase to be necessary for fiscal year 2020, and 58% believe the Hamilton County Commission will approve an increase.
Twenty seven percent of poll respondents said they do not think a property tax increase is needed this year.
Of those who support a tax hike, 33% said they would support an increase of 41 cents to 50 cents per $100 of assessed property value. The current property tax rate is $2.76 cents per $100 of assessed value.
ABOUT THE POWER POLL
The Power Poll, in which influential members of Tennessee’s four largest cities are surveyed on a variety of local topics, is not a scientific survey. It is designed to offer insights into what community leaders think about current issues and events. Power Poll members are capable of steering a city’s, or state’s, discussion one way or another. Members come from a variety of fields, including politics and government, the private sector, nonprofits, the religious community, and more.
* 12% favored an increase between 31 and 40 cents;
* 14% favored supported a 21 cent to 30 cent increase;
* 10% supported an increase of between 11 cents and 20 cents.
Only 5% of participants selected the lowest increase of 1-10 cents.
For some leaders, increasing the school budget is the obvious plan to promote the success of the area.
"The schools have to be the number one priority for the future success of our city, and [Superintendent] Dr. [Bryan] Johnson has put forward not only a vision but a plan to get us there," Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga President Maeghan Jones said Thursday. "I think it is a reasonable step. It is the next right step, but it's not the last right step we will need to take to invest in our schools."
She said an increase is "critical" to providing the best education for all local students.
Concern about school funding among poll participants likely stems from the overall lack of confidence in the state of public education. A majority (59%) of participants ranked the overall quality of public education in Hamilton County as "fair," while 19% ranked it as "good," 19% ranked it as "poor," and only 2% ranked it as "excellent."
The additional $34 million in school funding requested by Johnson would go toward teacher raises, increased technology for students, eliminating general school fees, further training opportunities for teachers and more than 350 additional positions, including:
> 10 social workers
> 10 special education teachers
> 11 art teachers
> 15 truancy officers
> 14 school counselors
Participants of the survey favored Johnson, with 88% saying that he is steering the district in the right direction.
Some local leaders such as Tom Decosimo, managing principal of Decosimo Corporate Finance, think that the proposed increase misses the mark on helping schools.
"I'm afraid we've got a lot of fluff in the budget and it's not addressing the larger issues that need to be addressed," Decosimo said. "In other words, we're giving our school system the chance to continue with the inefficiencies by masking it with tax increases."
Decosimo said that he is a proponent of good and accessible education as well as teacher pay increases, but that the proposed budget increase was too "willy nilly" on things such as school counselors.
At a recent community meeting, Hamilton County District 9 Commissioner Chester Bankston, a former school board member, echoed that sentiment, saying he doesn't think the Hamilton County Board of Education is a good steward of taxpayer's money.
"And I've worked in the district for 25 years and I've served on the school board and I still say no," he said.
One woman at the meeting asked what residents can do to change that.
"Stop giving them money," Bankston said.
County Mayor Jim Coppinger is expected to introduce his proposed 2020 budget to the county commission on June 5. Per the commission's code, no vote could be held until the third meeting after budget was introduced, or June 26. If the budget is not passed by June 30, a continuation budget will be needed, at which point the county has until September to pass a final budget.
Staff writer Allison Shirk Collins contributed to this report.
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.