Some of the educators who attended a town hall with elected officials Sunday to discuss funding public schools said it's just the beginning as teachers continue to come together and raise their voices in Hamilton County.
Nearly 200 people spilled out of a room at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center in Chattanooga on Sunday to hear from four school board members, two county commissioners, school system Superintendent Bryan Johnson and Mayor Jim Coppinger on topics related to funding education.
Questions raised by teachers included how Hamilton County Schools allocates money to individual schools, how the district expects to attract and retain teachers with its current salaries, why the Hamilton County school board cannot levy its own taxes and whether Johnson has a contingency plan if teachers organize and walk out of their classrooms.
"I think it went phenomenally," said Kendra Young, a teacher at East Hamilton School and one of the organizers of the event. "I think teachers felt heard by some elected officials and felt unheard by others."
The two commissioners present — District 5's Katherlyn Geter and District 6's David Sharpe — have been vocal proponents of increasing funding for public education, which already makes up more than 60% of Hamilton County's total general operating budget.
But none of the five commissioners called out in an original open letter drafted by Young and fellow teachers who make up Hamilton County United for voting against a property tax increase during this year's budget cycle were present.
Heather Modrow, a special education specialist at East Ridge Elementary, said teachers noted who was present and who was not.
"I think those who showed up were genuine. Those who didn't spoke just as loudly," Modrow said. "Today was a good starting point. I know the mayor has his meeting in December, and I would love to see this happen monthly on different topics."
School board members Kathy Lennon, of District 2; Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4; Jenny Hill, of District 6; and Tucker McClendon, of District 8, were also present.
Shortly after the school year began, Hamilton County teachers began calling for teacher raises next year — some calling for as much as 10% — after the district's original budget request, which included a 5% increase for teachers, was shot down by the commission. Instead, district and teacher union leaders as well as other representatives on the union's collaborative conferencing team agreed on a one-time $1,500 bonus and additional resources instead of the raise this year.
Many of the commissioners called out by the group have continuously emphasized that teachers need to take the issue up with the school board instead of the commission, which legally cannot direct the school district how to use general operating funds.
As attendees asked about how teacher pay in Hamilton County compared to surrounding counties, why substitutes aren't paid more and why deferred maintenance in the district's facilities have a staggering $1.36 billion price tag, Sharpe emphasized that these problems didn't develop overnight.
"Years ago, people in Hamilton County made a decision to build a lot of smaller neighborhood schools, and now over 20 years, we've had people make the decision that we don't want to invest in those schools," Sharpe said. "As we address these inefficiencies in the system, which will take years or even decades, how do we address the current needs in the classroom at the same time?"
He said it takes dollars, but that not everyone in the county can settle with that.
Sharpe's counterpart on the school board, Hill, echoed his comments and said expectations for teachers and students today are dramatically different than those of 50 years ago.
Hill said the district is "trying to make progress on a lot of things all at the same time."
"There are a lot of balls we have to keep in the air at one time. We need to make sure our teachers feel valued. We need to improve third grade reading. We need to make sure our buildings aren't falling down," she added.
Both Hill and Sharpe encouraged teachers to continue to raise their voices and be heard as both experts on what is happening in the classroom and as Hamilton County taxpayers and voters.
Franklin McCallie, a longtime educator and activist in Chattanooga, said he has not seen such active organization of teachers before.
"They have a dream, and are trying to make it happen," he said.
Theresa Turner, the local District 7 representative of the Tennessee Education Association, agreed with McCallie.
"Since 2011, the most activism I've seen is when they've filled the school board room when we've had an issue with the school board," Turner said.
She said it was a good thing that teachers are coming together.
As far as the district's plan for a hypothetical walkout or "sick outs," like teachers recently did in Indiana and Nashville, to call attention to the need for more public education funding, Johnson said the district does not have a plan and he hopes one will not be needed.
In recent years, states such as Oklahoma, Arizona, California and Colorado have seen widespread teacher strikes, and the Chicago Teachers Union only recently ended an 11-day strike after finalizing what many have called a "historic contract."
Teachers have not begun organizing or calling for strikes on a large scale locally, but the topic has come up when teachers ponder their next steps in what will be an ongoing debate through next year's budget cycle and elections.
WHO ATTENDED SUNDAY'S TOWN HALL?
Elected officials in attendance
— Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger
— County Commissioner Katherlyn Geter, District 5
— County Commissioner David Sharpe, District 6
— School board member Kathy Lennon, District 2
— School board member Tiffanie Robinson, District 4
— School board member Jenny Hill, District 6
— School board member Tucker McClendon, District 8
Elected officials not in attendance
— County Commissioner Randy Fairbanks, District 1: could not be reached for comment
— County Commissioner Chip Baker, District 2: was in New York City with his son, according to WRCB's David Carroll
— County Commissioner Greg Martin, District 3: was hosting the Hixson High Key Club and Hixson Kiwanis Club's Sunday dinner
— County Commissioner Warren Mackey, District 4: had a prior family engagement but told the Times Free Press that he was supportive of the conversation and wish he could have been there
— County Commissioner Sabrena Smedley, District 7: was out of town on previously planned business travel; she told the Times Free Press she had contacted the event organizers about her schedule conflict
— County Commissioner Tim Boyd, District 8: could not be reached for comment, but previously had announced at a commission meeting that he did not plan to attend
— County Commissioner Chester Bankston, District 9: schedule conflict/did not plan to attend
— School board member Rhonda Thurman, District 1: told the Times Free Press she had not planned to attend
— School board member Joe Smith, District 3: had a prior engagement and schedule conflict
— School board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, District 5: had a prior engagement with family and was traveling out of town
— School board member Joe Wingate, District 7: could not be reached for comment
— School board member Steve Highlander, District 8: preaches two services on Sunday/had a schedule conflict