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NASHVILLE — Local legislators are pressing Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and county school leaders to restrict the system's share of the $42.9 million recently approved by the Tennessee General Assembly for education salary increases to boost pay only for what the lawmakers consider actual "classroom teachers."

Both of the county delegation's two senators and all five representatives are defining that as someone licensed to teach and who also spends 50% or more of their time "on the job instructing students in the classroom or through other instructional means such as online instruction."

In their letter to Coppinger, school board chairman Joe Wingate, other school board members and Superintendent Bryan Johnson, legislators wrote that in their view Republican Gov. Bill Lee's plan for the additional funding is intended "for the purpose of increasing salaries to classroom teachers.

"It is our understanding that the Local Education Agency [school district] has the authority to distribute the salary increase to classroom teachers only," the letter continues. "Too many times in the past when the Legislature has passed salary increases for classroom teachers, the [school district] has chosen to distribute the pay increase to other personnel including administrative personnel that are far removed from the classroom."

Signing the letter were Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga; Senate Finance Committee Chair Bo Watson, R-Hixson; House Finance Chair Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain; and Reps. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah; Yusuf Hakeem, D-Chattanooga; Esther Helton, R-East Ridge; and Robin Smith, R-Hixson.

Efforts to reach Coppinger and Wingate were unsuccessful last week.

Hamilton County's share of the district allocations for the 2% increase passed by legislators is $1,884,000.

Teacher pay raises have been a thorn in the side of Gardenhire, who has complained for some time that when state officials say a budget contains a set percentage increase for education employees, it doesn't necessarily translate that way down to classroom teachers through Tennessee's Basic Education Program funding formula.

"Whenever the superintendents, teacher organizations, education associations want more money they always dangle the teachers out there as the reason to give money to all these things," Gardenhire said in an interview. "And when we give the money to them a lot of the classroom teachers never got what they were promised or thought they were promised."

Gardenhire and Carter have reintroduced a bill they had last year that seeks to write their definition of what they consider a classroom teacher —the 50% or more time spent teaching provision — into state law. There now is no definition in the law, Gardenhire said.

"Nowhere does it define what a classroom is except in the BEP formula, and that's someone with a teacher certificate," he said. "And that can be anybody It can be administrators, it can be superintendents, it can be principals, it can be counselors, you name it."

The BEP formula distributes the state share of Pre-K-12 public school to Tennessee's 141 local education agencies in four basic categories based on numbers of students enrolled and local governments' ability to raise tax revenues to pay their matching share.

Local governments in poorer counties can pay as little as 10% as their share. Hamilton County, one of the wealthier counties, contributes about 50% of the costs for its K-12 operation. The system also has more employees, including teachers, than the bare-bones BEP formula provides for.

The BEP has four main categories: instructional salaries, instructional benefits such as health insurance, classroom needs such as textbooks and technology as well as non-classroom areas such as school buses, maintenance and operation.

As Gardenhire said, state law doesn't define a classroom teacher. The BEP instructional salary category does cover employees with teaching licenses. The list has some 20 categories, including regular teachers, career and technical education teachers, principals, assistant principals, school counselors, psychologists, librarians, social workers and others.

Tennessee governors, including Lee, and legislators for years have described proposed increases in education as set percentages going to "teachers." But that's really a shorthand for more education spending in general.

During the special session, Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said those set percentages don't necessarily materialize, especially for larger districts.

"So if they've used the BEP in the past to hire those teachers plus a lot more, they would then potentially need an 8% increase to their instructional component to cover a 4% [raise] for everybody," Schwinn said during a Senate Finance Committee hearing during the special session. "That is why we can't have a straight percentage across the state."

Hamilton County Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson said in an interview that the system appreciates the state's support and that improving teacher pay "will continue to be a focus for us."

He said he's still trying to learn how much more money the county actually can expect.

The Hamilton County Schools district has some 6,000 employees, about 3,200 of whom have teacher certificates, Johnson said. Of that number, 2,700 receive some of their salary support through the BEP. Another 525 are higher than the formula's funding ratios provide for.

"We value teachers the same way and appreciate the work that's happened at the state level and the continued focus on increasing educator salary," Johnson said. "That's a committment that we applaud and are so appreciative of the governor's stance and all of what the legislature has done."

The weighted average state share of a 1% increase is about 0.5% for all instructional salaries in Hamilton County, according to county system figures.

Johnson said the system is still "in the infancy stages" of understanding how much it will actually see of the state's new nearly $43 million in funding.

The school chief also noted that "it takes everybody to run a school. Teachers absolutely have the biggest impact on student academic movement and growth. But I also know it takes the bus driver getting there safely. It takes the school nutrition personnel providing the breakfasts and the lunch."

Once the county actually gets the additional funds, Johnson said, the next steps will be working with the school board with a continued focus to "aggressively compensate our teachers." Asked about local legislators' desire to see the money go solely to teachers spending 50% or more of their time in the classroom, Johnson noted what makes the situation "even more complex is we're in a global pandemic."

The system has had librarians and instructional coaches spending 50% of their time or more covering vacancies left by teachers who have tested positive for the coronavirus or have come down with COVID-19, Johnson said.

Staff will "present options to the school board," he said. "And we'll obviously take into consideration what they [legislators] have shared and present options to our board. Here's what this option looks like, here's what that option looks like and here's what this option looks like.

"We're going to have to dig into it," Johnson said when pressed about the delegation's request. "I think the request has been made. I completely agree, we want to get teachers every single dime that we can. But that's been our stance."

Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown said Gardenhire has "historically had a problem with the definition of classroom teacher as it's defined in the BEP formula."

The "biggest problem" Brown said she sees right now in the delegation's approach is that "it totally disgregards the critical role that every single educator has played in providing services to our students during the pandemic."

That includes education support professionals, bus drivers, food services personnel, janitorial staff, educational aides working in classrooms, counselors, nurses and more, she said.

"These are all people who have played a critical role in continuing to meet the social, emotional, mental and academic and physical needs of our students during the pandemic," Brown said. "[The education association] would oppose any restriction on the district. The legislature made this a district decision and we hope that districts recognize and we call on districts to recognize what TEA recognizes as the critical role that all educators have played during this pandemic."

Hamilton County Education Association President Jeanette Omarkhail agreed.

"I will tell you that for us, for me and the association, we do not differentiate between educators. An educator is valuable, all of our educators, whether they're classified or certified, are valuable to our students," she said. "Classroom teachers cannot do the work that they're doing without the support of the others. So it is not anywhere in our thoughts to change that."

Omarkhail added that "we are working on having a conversation" with Gardenhire and Carter.

Gardenhire said, "we want to do exactly what our constituents, who by the way are all TEA members, we want to do exactly what they asked us to do. But over the years they have beat us up on 'you're not for the teachers.' Well, now let's see who's for the teachers."

Lee will be presenting more education funding proposals for the fiscal year 2020-21 budget that lawmakers will consider in the regular session.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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