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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Lori Cleveland, a special education teacher at Orchard Knob Elementary, and Heather Modrow, a special education teacher at East Ridge Elementary, hold up green cards to indicate they agree with the speaker during a Hamilton County school board and Hamilton County Commission joint meeting Monday, December 9, 2019 at Red Bank Middle School in Red Bank, Tennessee. The cards, which had green on one side and red on the other, gave community members and teachers the ability to give some input while allowing the board and commissioners to continue their conversations.

Teacher pay, school buildings that are falling apart, preparing students for the workforce, scholarships and financial aid.

After a year of contentious debate over how to fund public education in Hamilton County, local community and school leaders, elected officials and state lawmakers anticipate that education will still be top of mind for many in 2020.

Here are five education-related issues to pay attention to this year.

 

1. Teacher pay

Locally and across the state, how much teachers are paid is expected to be a top issue in Tennessee this year. At a recent meeting with Times Free Press reporters and editors, Superintendent Bryan Johnson and his chief business officer, Brent Goldberg, said teacher pay will be the "number one priority" as they begin building a three-year strategic financial plan and head into budget season this spring.

Gov. Bill Lee also mentioned teacher pay during a recent visit to Cleveland High School when he was asked what state lawmakers can do to strengthen public education.

"We are looking at how it is that we better support teachers," Lee said. "We want to make sure that our teachers are paid competitively to adjacent states."

In 2019, Lee included funding for an 2.5% increase for teacher salaries under the Basic Education Plan (BEP) funding formula in his budget, but school districts weren't obligated to use the money for teacher pay. Hamilton County Schools initially included a 5% raise in its proposed FY 2020 budget, but it was cut to a $1,500 one-time bonus after last summer's failed tax increase.

 

2. Dual enrollment, work-based learning programs

Lee's visit to Cleveland, Tennessee, early this year also highlighted an area that has seen significant work in Hamilton County and in surrounding areas: how schools are preparing students for life after high school and the workplace.

Building partnerships between private sector businesses and the public sector, like school districts, is one focus for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. Vice President of Talent Initiatives and Executive Director of Chattanooga 2.0 Molly Blankenship said the Chamber anticipates more businesses coming out to support initiatives such as Hamilton County Schools' Future Ready Institutes.

"Having a thriving public education system and post-secondary options is absolutely critical from an economic development perspective," she said.

WHAT ARE WE MISSING?

What issues or topics do you want to hear more about in 2020? What local stories should the Times Free Press be telling? Share your ideas online here or email reporter Meghan Mangrum with your education-related ideas at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com.

Jared Bigham, senior advisor on workforce & rural initiatives for the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, said this is a trend that he expects to see across the state.

"I think one of the areas we can really make an impact in workforce development across Tennessee is to find the resources to enable students to complete technical credentials by the time they graduate. This would especially benefit rural communities and distressed counties, as well as our urban cores," Bigham said. "I think in 2020 we will also see many more companies realizing the benefits of partnering with K-12 on work-based learning as a means of creating 'grow your own' talent pipelines."

 

3. School vouchers and school choice

Lee continues to push for his controversial school voucher program that will give money to families in Nashville and Memphis that make under a certain amount per year to use for paying for school outside the traditional public education system. It is expected to take effect this fall.

Though current state legislation excludes Hamilton County families from being eligible, the original legislation did include Chattanooga. As one of the largest metropolitan areas in the state, lawmakers anticipate the push will continue.

Both Bigham and Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga President Dan Challener expect eyes to turn to the voucher program as it rolls out this fall and some to call for accountability measures to ensure the program is working as intended.

Though vouchers won't be an option for Hamilton County students and families, they still might have more school choices in the coming years. Last fall, three existing charter schools — including Chattanooga Charter School for Excellence, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and Ivy Academy — notified the school board of their intent to apply for additions to their charters or to open new schools by 2021.

Those applications are due to the school board by Feb. 1.

 

4. Chattanooga school facilities

The conversation around Hamilton County Schools' buildings and the $1.36 billion price tag on deferred, needed maintenance is far from over. In the coming weeks, district officials are expected to hold numerous meetings on both zoning and MGT Consulting Group's preliminary facilities report.

MGT will be back at a Monday meeting with the school board to unveil updated recommendations, informed by a raucous set of community meetings last month as well as feedback from a survey shared with Hamilton County families and taxpayers.

Some board members have proposed how to tackle the process after MGT presents its final set of recommendations — slated for sometime in March — and board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, has said it could be a yearlong process.

Regardless, Johnson and his team told the Times Free Press that they plan "to be aggressive" when it comes to finding solutions for some of the district's worst buildings.

 

5. Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson's contract

Last September, Hamilton County school board members voted to explore extending Johnson's four-year contract after giving their superintendent a glowing evaluation of his second-year performance. Johnson's current contract ends in 2021, but with a 10-year facilities plan still in development and upward momentum in the district, some board members have been concerned about losing him.

"I am thankful for the leadership that Dr. Johnson has provided. There's no one who can look at our school system and where we are now and not believe that we are in a better place," said school board Chairman Joe Wingate at the time. "But nobody up here thinks that we've arrived. We are excited about the direction we are headed."

Some community leaders have also cited a drop in Johnson's morale after the Hamilton County Commission voted down a property tax rate increase for public schools last summer.

During his recent meeting with the Times Free Press, Johnson declined to speculate on his future in Chattanooga.

"I enjoy Hamilton County. It's a good place to raise a family," he said.

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

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