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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Superintendent Bryan Johnson answers questions during a press conference announcing a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Hamilton County at the McDaniel Building on Friday, March 13, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson will present a "lean" proposed budget to the Board of Education this week, amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Johnson and his team, including Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg, had planned to unveil a three-year strategic plan at a board work session on March 26, but the meeting was rescheduled for Monday as the district figures out how the board can meet virtually instead of in person.

Though Johnson has already hinted at his priorities for the fiscal year 2021 budget, with the economic impact of the coronavirus and slashes to proposed education funding in Gov. Bill Lee's budget, the team has had to revise the budget.

"The primary effect on the strategic financial plan with what happened recently is the plan for growth money has pretty much gone to zero," Goldberg told the Times Free Press last week. "We aren't planning on any sales tax growth and the [Basic Education Plan] money we'll get from the state will be less than what they thought it would be a week ago. ... It's fairly bleak in terms of what we're expecting."

Goldberg still plans to present a three-year financial plan with funding and revenue projections through 2023, he said, but most projections for property tax and sales tax growth locally will be scaled down.

"The budget is going to be straightforward because it has every appearance of a lean budget," Johnson told the Times Free Press.

In February, Johnson proposed a 2.5% mid-year pay hike for teachers, funded by $3 million in savings during the first half of the fiscal year, but the move also committed $6-7 million in future growth money to fund the recurring expense in the district's general purpose operational budget.

Johnson said the team is committed to teacher pay, but it is unlikely that the district will be able to ask for more funding or allocate additional growth money to another raise for teachers on top of the 2.5% approved this spring.

GOVERNMENT MEETINGS IN THE ERA OF THE CORONAVIRUS

In accordance with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations to limit large gatherings, local governing bodies are allowed meet electronically, as long as they provide electronic access to the public under Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s Executive Order No. 16. The Hamilton County Board of Education will meet electronically using Zoom and the public will be able to livestream the meeting on Hamilton County Schools’ Facebook or YouTube pages.

 

"There's so many unknowns right now. We obviously have a long-term plan, and everything we try to do is aligned with our strategic plan and the funding priorities laid out in that strategic plan," Johnson said. "With the way fiscal projections are for revenue, you're usually able to project revenue a lot better and make decisions and recommendations a lot easier based on those revenue projections. ... We really haven't felt great this week about what we are going to be able to do."

Johnson also noted that Lee's budget cuts — especially to teacher pay, literacy and student mental health — will have implications for the district, as well.

Lee's budget overhaul cut a proposed $250 million fund for student mental health, $68 million for literacy, $25 million for low-performing schools, including those in the Achievement School District, and $24 million for charter school capital projects.

It also only set aside $58.7 million for teacher pay, cutting Lee's original 4% teacher pay raise proposal to about a 2% increase.

"When you have the governor cutting some things out, it really signals the directions for us to go," Johnson told the Times Free Press.

"A lot of his areas of investment are things we have been talking about over the past several years," Johnson said. "We were proactive about teacher pay and we are able to sustain that, but our goal to add to that is now adversely impacted by what's going on across the country, the same with literacy, the same with mental health. We anticipate a lot of the things he trimmed back in his budget will obviously have direct implications on what we are able to do."

Additional funding for capital maintenance, something multiple board members have tossed around throughout the district's efforts to nail down a plan for its $1.36 billion in deferred maintenance, is also unlikely, Goldberg and Johnson said.

"Without any additional growth, it's pretty difficult for us to increase capital maintenance [funds]," Goldberg said. "We need to be spending $15-16 million a year. If we could've gotten to $4 million, we would've been happy just to start there."

Johnson also noted that, though conversations about a possible 10-year facilities plan for the district will continue, progress might not be as swift.

"At some point there will be an appropriate time to really dig into those conversations," he said. "When you're in the midst of a pandemic, there are some real urgent needs."

Goldberg said he hopes the seemingly inevitable recession will be a quick one, but the district still plans to be conservative.

"I think this recession will be a quick recession in a grand scheme of things, and once we get past the coronavirus I think we will see things going up," he said. "The market was due for a recession anyways, but we are going to be conservative."

The Hamilton County school board will meet for a budget work session on Monday at 5:30 p.m. The meeting will be held via teleconference for board members. The public can watch it via livestream on Hamilton County Schools' Facebook or YouTube pages.

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

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