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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson opens the session at the media center of the Howard School. Hamilton County Schools senior leadership team and Superintendent Bryan Johnson held a community listening sessions to gain insight on the community's priorities at the Howard School on February 18, 2020.

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Community helps with Hamilton County Schools' budget

More support for non-traditional students, teacher pay raises, transportation to Future Ready Institutes, protective cases and better insurance for student laptops, or Chromebooks — these are just some of the budget priorities brought up at a community meeting at The Howard School Tuesday night.

About two dozen Hamilton County Schools administrators, teachers, parents and community members gathered in the high school's library for the second of five community listening sessions that Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his team are holding ahead of this year's budget cycle.

Johnson already laid out some of his priorities in his State of the System address on Feb. 6 — literacy resources, mental health and social-emotional supports for students and teacher compensation — but he told the group Tuesday that he wanted to hear from them as well.

"At some point, I will be standing before the [County] Commission and presenting a budget," Johnson said. "We don't want it to be based on what we think, but based on what we know. That's why we are having these conversations to figure it out. ... We'll hear common themes throughout the system, and we will use that to formulate a budget."

Jai Neely, a mother of an eighth grader at Tyner Middle Academy, said that she thinks it is important for parents to be engaged and have their voices heard.

UPCOMING COMMUNITY BUDGET MEETINGS

— Feb. 24: Central High, 5728 TN-58, at 6 p.m.

— Feb. 25: Sequoyah High School, 9517 W Ridge Trail Road, at 6 p.m.

— March 2: Signal Mountain Middle/High School, 2650 Sam Powell Trail, at 5:30 p.m.

"It's so important for us as parents to try and get education and [be] involved in our school system. My child goes to Hamilton County Schools and I want to know what could have an impact on him," she said. "This is part of the community supporting the school system and saying we care."

She is satisfied with the education her son is receiving at Tyner and hopes that his access to technology and real-life learning opportunities continues. She said the school district has come a long way, but it still has room to grow.

As a human resources professional, she also views the school district's job from the perspective of an employer.

"The perspective I have is not only as a parent, but as an employer in Chattanooga who is hiring and recruiting and training people, and I see where the gaps are," Neely added.

Many of the attendees focused on the needs of students outside of the classroom.

Howard Principal LeAndrea Ware said she is always trying to find ways to reach and engage students, especially those who might struggle within a traditional school structure.

Howard is one of several Hamilton County schools with a large population of economically disadvantaged students and students of color. Howard also has one of the largest populations of English language learners and recent immigrant students, or newcomers, in the district.

Lourdes Rivera is also a parent and works as a case manager. She said that there are many non-traditional students like young mothers or newcomers who could benefit from more support services.

She was also happy to have the opportunity to share her thoughts with district leaders.

"I really enjoyed one of the other women who was at my table. I appreciate that I was able to voice my thoughts and what I feel is important," Rivera said.

Enhancing school safety was another priority among attendees. Neely said she is happy with the improvements she has seen at her son's school and the effect of the school resource officers, but others mentioned the need to increase security around school entrances and exits.

The school board will vote Thursday on a proposal to use about $165,000 from its general fund balance earmarked for school safety to purchase additional security cameras for schools.

The issue of improving school facilities, which has dominated school funding conversations since last year's budget vote, was not a focus of Tuesday night's meeting. The school board will receive a final recommendation from a consultant for how to tackle $1.36 billion in deferred maintenance in March, as the district begins to draft its fiscal year 2021 budget.

The school board's first official budget session is a discussion of a proposed, three-year strategic financial plan during a work session on March 19.

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

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