Cooper: For schools, the time is now

Cooper: For schools, the time is now

May 11th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Board of Education Chairman Joe Wingate and six of his colleagues voted for the school district to seek $34 million more in funding above projected revenue.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

The problem with the Hamilton County Board of Education asking for an additional $34 million in its fiscal 2020 budget is the knowledge that it will never be enough.

Even as Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson explained the budget to Times Free Press editors and writers several weeks ago, district officials acknowledged there was another $30-plus million that school personnel believe is needed.

And that doesn't even touch the bulk of the cost of the maintenance needs at the system's 79 schools, a cost that is rumored will skyrocket when a thorough facilities audit is completed.

School board members approved a $443 million budget Thursday night, a budget that seeks $34 million above projected revenue. Such a jump, given that it will be coupled with increased budgetary asks from other county agencies, almost certainly will require a tax increase.

It has been suggested Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger plans to ask for a 49-cent raise in property taxes, but he hasn't said as much. That would come two years after a de facto tax increase in 2017 that in part funded school district capital needs.

Such a tax increase — if requested — would be the county's 10th in the past 39 years, according to Hamilton County Clerk Bill Knowles. It would be the third largest increase during that span, the largest since 1999 and only the second to come within two years of a previous one.

We have said before we believe the district has made its case about needing more money. The additional money would fund, among other things, 350 positions, 295 of them in the schools.

The public has said it is important to return art teachers to all schools, and the budget funds 11 art teachers. It has said children's mental health is as important as what they learn, and the budget funds 10 social workers and 14 school counselors. The law has said more special education students need to be incorporated into traditional classrooms, and the budget funds 10 special education teachers and more para-professionals to assist with that.

The additional money also funds more technology, allowing for every student to have a laptop. And it covers general school fees, which all students traditionally have had to pay annually.

Significantly, the additional money — together with funds Gov. Bill Lee requested in the state budget for teacher raises — will give teachers a 5% increase. For folks who haven't had a raise in a decade, that's a lot. And when we see the number of administrative positions in the district and their six-figure salaries — nearly 60 — we shudder. But it is vital to lift Hamilton County classroom teachers' salaries into a competitive position with those in counties surrounding Hamilton and those across the line in Georgia.

School board member Dr. Steve Highlander said in Thursday's meeting that salaries are 3-5% higher in surrounding counties and up to 10% higher in Georgia.

If Hamilton County expects to employ the best teachers and have them stay, and parents expect their children to have better teachers, the higher salaries are a must.

In truth, we would have preferred such a large budgetary funds request come after several years of measurable test gains by students, especially in high priority schools. It would have been easier to justify.

Some small gains indeed have been made, and school officials say through-the-year benchmark tests indicate state test scores will be even better this year. But those won't be available until long after county commissioners will have voted on a tax increase, should one be requested.

No, this additional budget request says, in part, give us this, and we'll show you what we can do.

Of course, we've heard that before. And we don't know how soon the cries of desperation for more funds will come again.

We'll say again we believe the need is there and the case has been made by the significant turnaround work Johnson has begun in the district.

The case now is in the hands of Coppinger and county commissioners. If the county mayor suggests a 49-cent raise in property taxes, county commissioners will have to sell it to their constituents, some of whom may still be smarting from the 2017 increase.

Fortunately, tax relief for seniors is available from the state, the city and the county. That wasn't the case for all of the previous nine tax hikes since 1980.

In the end, if a tax increase is proposed, we hope county commissioners will support it, knowing that strengthening local public schools — whether they have children there are not — is the right move for the future of Chattanooga and Hamilton County and their workforce of the future.

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