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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County school board member Rhonda Thurman

Last month's vote by the Hamilton County school board to pass a 1% salary increase for educators was unanimous, but one board member now says she cast her vote unwittingly.

"At the school board meeting on Feb. 18, I did something I have not done since I was elected to the board in 2004," board member Rhonda Thurman said in a weekend internet post. "I voted for an across-the-board raise with one-time money. It may sound crazy, but I did not know I voted for it until the meeting was over."

The raise, retroactive to Jan. 1, was funded with $1.8 million in state money and $3.3 million in local funding. Because it was not a one-time bonus, the raise will carry into teacher salaries for next school year.

The entire board voted for the raise, listed in the consent agenda as a general purpose budget amendment. The state funding comes from a January legislative special session and is one-time revenue, while the local funding is excess sales tax revenue.

"Last summer, we made conservative estimates about how much money locally might be available to be utilized and teachers sacrificed a step increase, and then now that we're getting deeper into this year, when we took a look at what revenues were compared to what we estimated, the revenues were far above," Hamilton County Schools spokesman Cody Patterson said. "There was continued economic growth and stability in the Chattanooga area, which contributed to a strong base of local funding that we can utilize as part of our funding."

At an agenda-setting meeting earlier in the week, several board members including Thurman raised questions about the salary increase that were addressed by Superintendent Bryan Johnson and other school district leaders. Johnson said in the agenda meeting that $3.1 million in local funding was set aside to fund future raises based on projected sales tax revenue.

Thurman told the board earlier in the Feb. 15 agenda-setting meeting that she had a family member in the hospital and didn't read reports sent out that day. She told the Times Free Press on Monday that, normally, raises are included in the agenda items for discussion, rather than on the "consent agenda" for routine matters that don't require discussion or separate vote.

"And had I thought about [the raise] being on [the consent agenda], I would have pulled it off to discuss but I just, like I said, I had a family member in the hospital and I left the hospital and came straight to the board meeting and I just didn't have time to look for it," Thurman said.

She said she wished there was more discussion among board members before voting on Thursday.

"They had just given us the proposal on Monday night, and that's from Monday to Thursday, some time for questions, but I just wanted to discuss it with the other board members and we didn't get an opportunity to do that," Thurman told the Times Free Press. "I just think that things like that need to be on the agenda and be its own line item. We don't need to put it down in consent agenda because that just sets a bad precedent. We could stick a 2 or 3% raise in there and vote on it and nobody would ever be none the wiser."

The raises were funded by a state allocation from a January special session of the General Assembly for this school year, and local money from an increase in tax revenue compared to what was budgeted for this school year was used to carry the raises forward into next year. 

Thurman does not plan to try reversing her vote at the next meeting because the vote would have passed regardless and she has not seen anyone do that in her time on the board. She said she doesn't like using money from reserves for recurring expenses.

"All things go up, and I'm sure revenues will go up but so will our expenses," Thurman said.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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