Cooper: Hamilton County Schools - the need is there

Cooper: Hamilton County Schools - the need is there

April 27th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks about the proposed 2019-20 budget during a press conference at the Hamilton County Schools board room on Thursday, April 25, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

A few Hamilton County residents, perhaps those who have lived under a rock for the past two decades, may believe our local school district has everything it needs.

Most residents, though, understand that it does not.

Oh, to be sure, schools open every August, operate during the year and close in May. Students arrive, teachers teach, lunches are served, sports are played, tests are administered, students graduate, and successes are achieved.

But those who bother to learn anything about the public schools know things should be better.

» If they went to Chattanooga City or Hamilton County schools some years ago, they know all students now don't receive the art or music education they once did.

» They know nearby states, and even nearby school districts, pay their teachers more than Hamilton County does.

» They say they want their children to feel safe in their schools, but they know the money to pay for additional safety measures — from school resource officers to better reinforced doors to electronic security systems — doesn't fall out of the sky.

» They say they want the needs of the whole child to be met, and for significant cognitive and behavioral problems to be detected early, but they know money to fund those counseling and social work positions cannot be put ahead of money for daily operations.

» They say they want their schools to look attractive for children, and expect those schools to operate at peak efficiency, but the cost of, say, new and energy efficient windows that perk up the look of the school and save on power bills is not inexpensive.

» They say they want local school children to have the latest technology so as to not be behind students in other locations and other states but realize that's not a possibility when budgets are tight.

» They want transportation needs met, sports facilities funded, and principals trained and retained.

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson says the district has not had an increase in the funds it receives for operational expenses in 14 years.

Before anyone blows a gasket, yes, the schools get more money from the state and county each year, including funds that can be used for teacher raises or other operating needs. Yes, the county used part of a 2017 de facto tax increase to fund various new schools and other schools capital projects. Yes, the district has reaped millions of extra dollars in federal and state funds for its most struggling schools. And yes, the district even has a sizable fund balance from which it can and has drawn.

But since 2005, Johnson says, the district hasn't had an increase solely to fund operations.

Hamilton County Board of Education members, who determine what budgetary amount the schools will request from the county for the 2019-2020 school year, and Hamilton County Commission members, who must approve or reject the county mayor's proposed budget, know the public schools don't have all that they should.

County Mayor Jim Coppinger, we pointed out in February, talked as if he knew the district needed to be better funded.

"We need to turn our attention now to [Johnson's] goals and priorities and in turn give more resources for the classroom," he said.

Earlier this week, he said something similar.

"My hopes are, as I believe all the citizens of Hamilton County's hopes are, to get better results," he said. "We have to provide more resources for the classroom to get better results in order to do that. We always have to explore what the options are, and sometimes they require more money."

Of course, Coppinger made similar comments in 2017, then did not ask for additional revenue, and the fiscal 2018 budget was passed without it. Then, more than two months later, he asked for the de facto property tax increase for schools, a new sewage treatment plant and new jail funding.

But that's putting the cart before the horse. Johnson still has to convince school board members to not request a balanced budget of $409 million but to submit a budget to the county with $34 million in additional requests for some of the staff positions, safety items and teacher salary needs that most everyone knows the district should have. The other option would be to present a balanced budget and a needs list and hope that some or most of those needs get funded.

And then, later, Coppinger will have the task to sell such a plan to county commissioners, who will want their constituents' buy-in on it.

Those constituents, like the county commissioners, like the county mayor, like the school board members, know the needs are there. They know the district has been underfunded. They know Johnson has begun to effect a turnaround in the schools. They also know their wallets and their purses and what they can afford.

We hope they'll make it abundantly clear to their elected officials whether they can afford a little more for the schools, because it's not a question of need. That's already been demonstrated.

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