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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Hamilton County school board members Rhonda Thurman, left, Tucker McClendon and Karitsa Jones listen during a work session at the Hamilton County Department of Education in 2020.

With hopes of offering more competitive wages to faculty and staff, the Hamilton County Board of Education has delayed approval of its $448 million budget for the coming school year while awaiting action from state legislators.

The board voted last week to delay the vote as the state finalizes work on its education funding formula.

State revenue available to Hamilton County Schools could end up being between $184 million and $188 million, Chief Talent Officer Penny Murray told board members last week.

Employee compensation makes up about 78% of the district's proposed budget. Coupled with a nationwide teacher shortage — which has been exacerbated by the pandemic — and pressure to compete with surrounding districts, board members said they wanted to wait to consider more compensation scenarios.

Currently, the budget includes a 2% salary increase for teachers. Starting pay for classified staff would also be raised to $15 an hour — but that could change once final allocations roll in.

Republican Board of Education member Joe Smith, who represents Hixson, made the motion to wait to vote at Thursday's meeting.

"I still would like to see us be able to give our staff, our teachers, a raise and what that would look like. So, I think we'd be a little premature if we voted on the budget tonight. So, the motion is to not vote on the budget until we get those numbers," Smith said.

His motion passed unanimously.

Other options on the table for consideration include a potential 0.5% increase for all staff ($1.55 million in total costs) or a 1% increase for all staff ($3.1 million in total costs). The board is also considering a $1 hourly rate increase for classified staff funded through the general-purpose budget. Classified staff include all employees who are not required by the state of Tennessee to be certified as educators. Another consideration is an entirely new pay scale for classified staff ($2 million in total costs).

In terms of salary competitiveness, Hamilton County Schools "falls in the middle" compared to surrounding districts, Murray said. On average, a teacher with a bachelor's degree makes $41,876 and a teacher with a master's makes $44,913.

"We're currently about $1,600 behind Bradley County on a bachelor's and we're about $2,200 behind Cleveland and $6,000 for Nashville," said Chairman Tucker McClendon, who represents East Ridge, adding that even with a 2.5% raise, Hamilton County Schools is still not competitive, should other counties also increase their wages.

"Somehow, some way, in the next several years, we got to fix that. If I live in Ooltewah, and I can make $2,000 more by driving 10 minutes to Bradley County, it just doesn't make much sense for them not to do that," McClendon said.

Board members also discussed expanding non-monetary benefits, like free access to the district's health clinics to all employees.

"If we were to be able to develop a health care benefit product aimed for classified employees and even part-time employees that would only be in our clinics and potentially only in our pharmacies and telehealth, I wonder, might we then be able to actually offer that same product to our full-time certified staff as an option that would cost them less?" Jenny Hill, who represents North Chattanooga, asked district officials.

Murray said the answer would require more research.

Marco Perez, who represents Signal Mountain, said he'd also like to see benefits expanded and at a lower cost to employees. He said he'd heard anecdotally that some employees opt out of benefits because they "can't afford them."

"It's actually a shocking statement. We want people to be protected. We don't create benefits hoping people don't take them. We create them because we know people may need them and use them," Perez said.

Karitsa Jones, who represents Lake Hills, said while she agreed with offering raises, the district should be allocating funds to help support staff morale.

"Everybody likes money in their pocket. But as a social worker in the social service field, sometimes you can get paid enough, but you still get compassion fatigue. You wear out," Jones said. "Is there opportunity for us to provide additional funding so that the administration can allocate funding to help with the culture and climate, like team building? Things to let them know they're cared about and concerned for beyond a dollar amount."

The district should know its final state funding amount by early May and will make decisions at that time, Communications Officer Steve Doremus said in an email.

Contact Carmen Nesbitt at cnesbitt@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @carmen_nesbitt.

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