Despite adding $1.8 million back into the district's proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, Hamilton County teachers will not be getting their annual pay increases this year.
The Hamilton County school board met, remotely, for the third time Monday night to vote on a general operating budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The board needed to add $1.8 million in projected revenue back into its adopted budget, after cutting projected revenue increases at the urging of county commissioners.
After approving a $417 million budget last week that eliminated teachers' annual step increases, eliminated two positions in the central office and froze non-teacher hiring and purchasing through at least June 30, among other cuts, the board sent the budget to the county finance team — but they sent it back.
On Friday, Superintendent Bryan Johnson proposed the board use the $1.8 million and $1 million the board budgeted to put into its fund balance to fund the $2.8 million needed for the step increases.
Board members Steve Highlander, of District 9, and Jenny Hill, of District 6, motioned to do just that — but a motion to put all $2.8 million into the district's rainy day fund passed 6-3 instead.
Ultimately, Highlander also voted in favor of saving the money in light of uncertain economic conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well.
The Hamilton County school board will meet with the Hamilton County Commission at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5 to present its adopted FY 2021 budget. The meeting will be live-streamed online on Hamilton County’s YouTube page.
Board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, first noted that giving teachers the increase was "tone deaf to the public."
"This is just not a time for anyone to get a raise, I don't care who it is. Teachers don't work any harder than anyone else. The teachers haven't lost one penny yet. I'm here to represent the taxpayers," Thurman said. "We have taken care of our teachers. We've paid them. We've paid our bus drivers, we've paid our cafeteria workers, we've paid our custodians. ... I'm sorry, but I just don't see why this has to be our top priority. This is not right."
Board member Tucker McClendon said he was concerned about the guidance the district has received from the county and that Hamilton County is not budgeting for cuts like most of Tennessee's other large counties.
Mayor Jim Coppinger has said the county will present a balanced budget this year, but the $1.8 million initially cut from the schools budget caused a "maintenance of effort" problem for the county.
Tennessee's maintenance-of-effort laws are meant to ensure that local governments do not decrease local funding for public education if state funding for schools increases, according to the state comptroller's office. County commissions or city councils must budget at least the same total dollars for schools that they did the previous year to comply with the laws.
Board member Tiffanie Robinson, of District 4, characterized the vote not to reinstate step increases as the board "going against its word." She, along with board members Kathy Lennon, of District 2, and Jenny Hill, of District 6, eventually voted against the motion.
Hill also was disappointed in the board's move, calling it "premature."
"Accelerating student achievement and ensuring we have great teachers and leaders in our schools are the linchpin to our strategic plan," Hill said after the meeting. "With this vote the board was striving for conservative fiscal management. Instead I fear it demonstrated a concerning willingness to cut and run away from our bold vision the moment things got difficult."
Hamilton County United, a teacher advocacy group that formed after last year's budget process and has advocated for increasing teacher pay for months, said it understood the board's decision but was disappointed in Thurman's comments about teachers.
"We know the board is making the best decisions they can at this point in time. However, Mrs. Thurman's comments towards teachers were insulting and even more disappointing than the board's decision," representatives of the organization told the Times Free Press.