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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson speaks to the Times Free Press Editorial Board on February 14, 2022.

Discussion on the Hamilton County Schools' proposed budget presented Monday night focused on employee compensation, which makes up about 78% of the district's budget.

The $448 million budget is priority-based, meaning it's centered on the district's priorities rather than the funding source, Deputy Superintendent Sonia Stewart said.

"This is intended to remind us all that money comes to us from different sources," Stewart said.

That includes the state and local dollars that fund the general purpose budget, as well as federal grants and relief funds that can be strategically used to fund the district's priorities, she said.

The proposed budget shifts to the general purpose budget 25.4 positions that were previously funded using coronavirus relief funds. Those positions are mainly counselors and nurses, as well as a bus video coordinator, tech integration coaches and instructional coaches.

Superintendent Justin Robertson said the reason for the shift in funding sources is because counselors and nurses are clearly funded in the new state funding formula coming down the pipeline.

"We are also committed to having counselors and nurses in each and every one of our buildings," Robertson said, adding that it's difficult right now to hire nurses and counselors, and grant-funded positions are less competitive than those funded in the general purpose budget.

Several positions — parent volunteer coordinators and behavior specialists — that were previously funded in the general purpose budget are funded using relief funds in the proposed budget.

The district is requesting 25.5 new positions to be funded in the general purpose budget, including 10 additional English as a second language instructors, two teachers and a coordinator position for the new Construction Center at Garber, several new assistant principals added based on the district's staffing model, two new school board members for the recently established districts and a full-time district athletic director.

The budget includes a 2% salary increase and step increases, which for most employees amounts to about a 1.5% increase. Starting pay for classified staff was also raised to $15 an hour.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County school board accepts report from book review committee)

Rhonda Thurman, who represents Soddy-Daisy and Sale Creek, said she disagrees with giving raises based on a percentage because it widens the gap between higher and lower paid employees. She asked if it would be possible to calculate 2% of the highest paid teacher's salary and give that amount to everyone.

Robertson said to get talented employees in administrative positions, the district has to pay them a competitive salary.

"We can run a school a whole lot better without administrators than without teachers," Thurman responded.

Tiffanie Robinson, who represents the downtown area, expressed concern about $15 an hour starting pay for school nutrition employees, as the district has many vacancies in those positions and people can make $18-$19 an hour in other food service jobs.

She suggested looking into nutrition vendors that could potentially bring in more revenue and pay employees more, and Robertson said the district is exploring those options.

Joe Smith, who represents Hixson, advocated for stipends for school-based athletic directors.

"Those guys, they unlock the door and they turn out the lights but they don't get anything," Smith said.

Jenny Hill, of North Chattanooga, said it makes her nervous to use money "saved" because of unfilled positions to help fund pay increases.

"The pot is only so big and frankly, as I see this budget, we're scraping the bottom of it," she said. "We're using one-time money to do a lot of things that feel more and more essential every day."

Hill gave switching positions such as behavioral specialists and parent volunteer coordinators to grant-funded positions as examples, because that essentially means those positions are on the chopping block when money gets tight, she said.

The board is scheduled to continue discussion of the budget at its April 18 work session.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

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