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CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story misidentified a recent letter inviting county representatives to a town hall as one to which more than 1,340 educators have signed their names. In fact, they have now signed on to an Oct. 20 letter to Hamilton County commissioners and school board members calling for more funding for education. This story was updated Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019, at 9:45 p.m. CLARIFICATION: This story was updated at 12:21 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019, to include the name of another member of the senior leadership team for Hamilton County Schools.

Hundreds of teachers and supporters of public education are continuing to organize ahead of a Sunday town hall aimed at discussing teacher compensation and how to fund public education in Hamilton County.

Since a group of Hamilton County Schools teachers, now called Hamilton County United, released an open letter on Oct. 20 calling out five county commissioners for voting against increased funding for public education, hundreds more have signed on.

In the initial letter, more than 70 teachers called out Commissioners Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin and Chester Bankston for voting against a wheel tax referendum and a 34-cent property tax increase included in the first round of FY 2020 budget proposals that could have directed more funding to public education.

Now, after the 18 county commissioners and school board members were invited to a town hall, which many of the group's organizers consider a call to action, the open letter has collected more than 1,340 signatures.

Some of the big names among the signers include Superintendent Bryan Johnson's Chief of Staff Nakia Towns Edwards and Chief of Choice and Innovation Jill Levine. County Commissioner David Sharpe, and Jonas Barriere, executive director of the local education nonprofit UnifiEd, also signed the letter. 

Of Hamilton County Schools' approximately 3,660 teachers and administrators, nearly 20% are included in the list, said Kendra Young, one of the main organizers of the event and a science teacher at East Hamilton School, in an email.

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View the updated teacher letter:

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Teachers attribute the budget rejection to why they did not receive the 5% pay bump included in Hamilton County Schools' original budget and are now calling for 5% and potentially more.

"We work hard, often giving out of our own pockets to make sure our students have the things they need," the letter reads. "The extra hours we put in, often at the expense of our own families, are given because we believe the work we do matters. Teachers do not expect to become wealthy in our line of work, but we do expect a fair wage."

Carolina Souza, an instructional coach at McConnell Elementary, wants the community to realize the movement isn't just about teacher pay but about the value Hamilton County puts on education in general, she said.

"I just wish the whole narrative would change. It's not just about teacher compensation, but really about education for students," Souza said. "I would just like a chance for everyone to come together and really figure out a way to give education in Hamilton County the respect that it deserves. I really feel like right now it's not valued and it's not important [and] I feel like that's the message that's being trickled down to students."

Young sent invitations via email to county commissioners, school board members, Mayor Jim Coppinger and Superintendent Bryan Johnson on Nov. 5.

The next day at the county commission meeting, commissioners noted the invitation, but Tim Boyd, of District 8, called it "inappropriate." School board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, echoed Boyd and encouraged commissioners, school board members and teachers to "stay in their lane" and said her fellow school board members needed to reflect on budget priorities.

But in the days that have followed, at least three commissioners and five school board members have said they would attend Sunday's meeting.

John DeVore, a sixth grade English language arts teacher at Hixson Middle School, said he hopes commissioners will listen to teachers' concerns at the town hall, but he doesn't necessarily know if they will.

Mostly, he hopes to get a large turnout from educators for the conversation that he characterizes as "long overdue."

"I've been a proponent of public education for a long time. Obviously — I'm a teacher. We've been behind in teacher pay for a very long time [and] I feel like a lot of the issues we're facing right now are directly related to that," DeVore said.

He hopes teachers will continue to organize, even politically, and have their voices heard in next year's budget ad election cycles.

"I would love to see people get organized politically," he said. "We have to get teachers specifically to go vote in these elections. We need more teachers to go to meetings. I wish that we were organizing a year ago or two years ago, I think that would have made a difference in this past budget cycle."

The Hamilton County Education Association, the local teacher's union that represents Hamilton County's teachers when negotiating annual contracts, has officially endorsed the group's efforts and supports the town hall, said President Jeanette Omarkhail.

"At this point, HCEA is standing alongside Hamilton [County] United on this and we are encouraging our members to attend Sunday and share our concerns," she said. "We have the same goal in increasing a sustained compensation for educators. We also believe that teachers have a right to be listened to. They have asked to be heard."

HCEA helped negotiate the one-time $1,500 bonus that teachers received this year in lieu of a teacher pay bump after the county commission shot down Superintendent Bryan Johnson's original proposed $443 million budget.

Some county commissioners have pointed out that the school district received $19 million in local growth money this year and the commission cannot dictate how the school board allocates funds. Those same commissioners have told teachers to take their concerns about pay to the school board instead.

But Souza said she believes "actions speaker louder than words" and the district put in a good faith effort to give teachers something this year with the bonus.

"It's tough because if you have a limited amount of money, do you give teachers these supports they've been asking for or a little bit of that pay raise?" echoed Heather Modrow, a special education specialist at East Ridge Elementary.

"Teachers have stayed silent for far too long thinking that those in power would do the right thing. Weave been asking. Teachers are leaving. Hopefully, by coming together, we can find a solution. No one wants to pay more taxes, but yet everyone wants a job and everyone wants their children to have a good education," she added.

Modrow also echoed DeVore. She said teachers are ready for the upcoming 2020 election cycles. She also noted that the group isn't affiliated with other activist groups in town, but is truly a grassroots teacher movement.

"We are not HCEA, this is not UnifiEd. We are just a bunch of fed-up teachers, and we are asking a bunch of them and telling them to come join us, and we are inviting the community to help us make a change."

The town hall will be at 3 p.m. on Sunday at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center, 1010 North Moore Road. David Carroll of WRCB-TV Channel 3 will be moderating.

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

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