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Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson answers a question from a town hall audience. Hamilton County United held a teachers town hall at the Brainerd Youth and Family Development Center on November 17, 2019, discussing the funding of public education and increasing teacher pay. / Staff Photo by Robin Rudd

Extending Superintendent Bryan Johnson's tenure at the helm of Hamilton County Schools will be the first item of business at this month's school board meeting on Feb. 20, the district announced Wednesday.

Several school board members have been pushing for months to renew or extend Johnson's contract after the board voted in September to open the door for such conversations.

The district would have to offer the superintendent, who was hired in 2017, a new contract instead of extending his current $217,000-per-year contract, which is up in July 2021.

Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, told the Times Free Press that though this month's discussion is earlier than some board members wanted to bring the topic up, they would have had to this spring anyways.

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School Board Chairman Joe Wingate opens up a meeting Monday, Jan. 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Hamilton County Board of Education met jointly with the Hamilton County Commissioners. Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

The board is coming up on a blackout period when they would not be able to negotiate a new contract from May to September due to August's school board elections.

"In fairness to our Superintendent and to us as a board, we don't need to be waiting until next fall within eight or nine months of a contract ending," Wingate said. "That's a bad time, when everyone is looking for a superintendent." 

Wingate said he wasn't concerned about losing Johnson if the board waited until the fall to negotiate a new contract, but he did acknowledge that Johnson is a "sought after candidate."

Board member Joe Smith, of District 3, first pushed to start the process in September over concerns that other districts were looking to recruit Johnson after the district's historic student achievement gains over the past two years.

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Hamilton County School Board member Joe Smith speaks during meeting at the Hamilton County Board of Education Monday, January 14, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Hamilton County Board of Education met jointly with the Hamilton County Commissioners. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith /

"The most important thing the school system needs is stability," Smith said in a statement Wednesday. "Dr. Johnson was the fourth superintendent in 11 years when he was hired, and it's time for stability at the top. Young and innovative superintendents are in demand, and the community is best served by keeping Dr. Johnson in Hamilton County." 

School board attorney Scott Bennett brought contract negotiations at the school board's annual retreat in December, notifying board members that he had met with Johnson since the September vote to discuss his contract. 

Bennett said at that point he and Johnson had discussed how bonuses are awarded, what metrics the superintendent is evaluated against and whether he can get paid for speaking engagements or not — now he cannot.

Last month, the board debated the next steps in the process at the board's Jan. 13 meeting. At the time, Smith said he was aware that the board had received a contract it was ready to vote on and requested to schedule a special-called meeting to vote on it. Under state law, the board must announce such a meeting at least 15 days before the vote.

Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, quickly jumped in and said she didn't see any reason for rushing the conversation.

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Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman speaks during a Hamilton County school board and Hamilton County Commission joint meeting Monday, Dec. 9, 2019 at Red Bank Middle School in Red Bank, Tennessee. / Staff photo by Erin O. Smith

"He's not going anywhere unless somebody pays out his contract, and it's not going to be us," Thurman said Jan. 13. "If someone wants him that bad and he wants to go, let them pay out his contract and let him go. If whoever wants to leave in the middle of their contract, then let whoever wants them buy out their contract, not the Hamilton County taxpayers, again. So I'm not understanding, what's the rush?"

School board members received a first draft of a new contract on Jan. 11 from Bennett and an updated one more recently, sticking to Bennett's initial timeline of presenting a contract to the board in February. Wingate said the board has not seen a final contract yet and all negotiations so far have been between Johnson and Bennett. 

The Times Free Press has requested the new contract but Hamilton County Schools has not yet complied with the request.

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

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