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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during the Hamilton County State of the System address at Howard Connect Academy on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

This story was updated Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at 9:30 p.m. with more information.

Hamilton County teachers could — finally — be getting a raise.

All of the school district's certified staff could receive a 2.5% pay hike effective this month — if the school board approves — thanks to $3 million in savings during the first half of the fiscal year, Superintendent Bryan Johnson announced during his State of the System address Thursday night.

The school board will vote on the raise at its Feb. 20 meeting. If approved, it will be a recurring hike. It will cost the district an additional $7 million annually.

"We continue to remain committed to making sure our teachers and leaders are compensated fairly and that we lead in regards to it," Johnson told the Times Free Press. "There's been $16.2 million in funds that we have put towards compensation for teachers and leaders."

Teacher pay has been a hot topic for more than a year, with raises being debated last summer during Hamilton County's budget process. Johnson's initial proposed budget for FY 2020 included a 5% raise that was then cut to a 2.5% raise after the Hamilton County Commission voted down a property tax rate increase to fund the district's request for additional operational funding.

The 2.5% raise never became reality, though. District officials and representatives from the teachers' union agreed to forego the raise and instead use the more than $6 million to fund additional student support positions such as school counselors, special education assistants and other new positions.

County commissioners questioned the district's decision ahead of approving Johnson's revised balanced budget, prompting school board members to fire back.

But most teachers have received at least $2,055 in one-time bonuses this school year in addition to their annual step increase, which, depending on their years of service, amounts to at least a 1% bump, according to the school district's chief business officer Brent Goldberg.

"People look at them as something that automatically happens, but it's subject to funding and it really is a raise. On average it's about 1%. Some are less, some are more depending on the step," Goldberg said.

With Johnson's proposed 2.5% mid-year increase, most teachers could see another $600-$700 in their pockets this school year.

Goldberg anticipates the district still will come in under budget this year thanks to increased revenues from local sales and property taxes. The $3 million available mid-year could roll into the district's $32 million fund balance, but instead the administration felt a mid-year raise was a better use of those funds, Goldberg and Johnson told the Times Free Press.

"As of the end of January we are on track to collect at least $3 million more than what we budgeted for," Goldberg said. "We are getting more money in property tax and more money in sales taxes."

When creating this year's budget, the school district increased projected revenues by $12 million, but Goldberg and Johnson attributed the even-higher revenue collection to the economy.

Last year, the school district asked the county commission for an additional $34 million in recurring operations funding, despite coming in under budget by about $11 million. Goldberg has said previously that the district does not anticipate such savings in the future because of changes in how the school district accounts for projected revenue.

Johnson also attributed the $3 million savings to "fiscal responsibility" and more aggressive budgeting, as well as more efficient operations overall.

"We have had to operate conservatively, and I think it's a broader level conversation about what are the best school systems doing for public education. When we made a proposal, we made a proposal about becoming the best. This is what we need to become the best," he said. "When you come back and you have to adjust, obviously you have to be more conservative in what you do."

Johnson has also hinted at another teacher pay hike in this year's budget request. Gov. Bill Lee included an additional $117 million toward teacher salaries across the state in his own budget proposal announced this week, saying it would amount to about a 4% raise for most teachers.

District officials are cautious, though. Since Hamilton County has more teachers than the Tennessee Basic Education Program funding formula allows, teachers here would not see a 4% raise from the governor. Goldberg projects the district might receive $3-4 million of that additional funding, which would allow for less than a 2% raise across all certified staff.

Several board members acknowledged that they haven't seen Johnson's complete proposal and some, like board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8, were cautious about where the $3 million was coming from before they would commit to supporting the proposal.

Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, said he was unhappy that he learned about Johnson's proposal from constituents and the media and not from Johnson himself.

But board member Joe Smith, of District 3, said he was in support of Johnson's proposal and "couldn't imagine why any of his colleagues on the board would not be in support of it."

The Hamilton County Education Association also praised Johnson's proposal Thursday night.

"This proposal is a step in the right direction. We are appreciative of the support of the community. However, the journey is not over," said the teachers union president, Jeanette Omarkhail, in a statement. "This has shown that Hamilton County Schools has worked to use their resources to fund our priorities. We encourage the community and all our elected officials to make competitive professional educator pay a priority for funding in FY 2021."

Mayor Jim Coppinger spoke favorably when introducing Johnson Thursday night and hinted at some of Johnson's "extreme" asks in the past.

"When he got here in 2017, he hit the ground running and really hasn't stopped yet," Coppinger said of Johnson — whose contract will also be up for consideration at the school board's Feb. 20 meeting. "And yes, he has asked for some extreme resources, but I would be disappointed in any leader that doesn't ask for additional resources."

Johnson also alluded to other priorities for the district ahead of this year's budget cycle during his address, including literacy, whole child and mental health supports, facilities and recruitment. Teacher compensation was among them.

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

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