One week from today a group of Hamilton County Schools teachers will hold a town hall gathering on teacher pay and public education funding.
We have frequently raised our voice for better teacher pay and certainly support their freedom in making their concerns known. But we wonder what they believe can or will happen before fiscal 2021 budget discussions begin next spring.
Earlier this year, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger presented a budget for fiscal 2020 that would have given district teachers a 5% raise and used whatever clout he had to persuade Hamilton County commissioners to approve it. But commissioners, objecting not so much to the teacher pay as to the large tax increase that would be required to fund those raises if passed, voted it down.
The Hamilton County Board of Education, in negotiations with teachers' representatives, then sent Coppinger a budget that included no raises for teachers and certified staff (including the money allocated by the state for a 2 1/2% raise). Instead, a onetime bonus that would come from its rainy day fund was included.
Commissioners, believing this is what school board members and teachers decided they wanted, passed the budget.
So we wonder why teachers planning the town hall haven't taken board members and their negotiators to the woodshed and thrashed them a bit in telling them, no, this is not what we wanted. And maybe they have, but it seems like taking their concerns public is akin to shutting the barn door after the horses have left.
Members of the public, after all, have spoken through their county commissioners. In fact, we believe they think as we do that teachers do deserve higher pay but that a 34-cent property tax hike to pay for the salary increases and a myriad of needs the district put in its budget request was too much to ask at one time.
The county commissioners who voted against the tax rise said as much.
IF YOU GO
The town hall is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 17, at 3 p.m., at the Brainerd Youth & Family Development Center, 1010 N. Moore Road.
And members of the public, of course, weren't consulted when school board members and teacher negotiators agreed on their substitute budget and the onetime bonus. They might have hoped, as we did, that salaries might be the center of negotiations this year and then the other district needs would be dealt with as part of budget talks in fiscal 2021.
But those teachers, apparently unhappy with what their own negotiators, did later prevailed upon County Commissioner David Sharpe to raise the possibility of a wheel tax to, in essence, pay for teacher salary increases. In the relative blink of an eye, a resolution was drawn up and submitted.
A vote would be taken to put a wheel tax question on the presidential primary ballot next spring. If the resolution was approved, Hamilton County voters would decide whether they wanted an annual $60 tax on vehicles, with the money going to public schools.
Although we believed there wasn't enough discussion on the ramifications of such a tax, we believed that a public vote on adding such a tax was a proper approach. We don't believe such a tax would have passed, but it would have solidified voters' immediate thoughts on issues involving their wallets.
Nevertheless, commissioners did not approve the resolution, so no referendum will appear on next year's ballot. In this case as in the proposed 34-cent tax rise, we believe commissioners heard from their constituents. We figure they probably heard something like: "We're never going to vote for a wheel tax, so why put it on the ballot?"
But back to the teachers and their dissatisfaction over salaries. Perhaps this is just their first salvo for the 2021 budget. If that is the case, we hope instead of rehashing all that has happened this year, they'll concentrate on what they'd like to see happen next year.
Banging the drum for a huge property tax increase will be a waste of their breath. The public has said twice through its commissioners this year that it doesn't support one. So it might be instructive to ask members of the public who are not teachers who turn out for the town hall what — if anything — they believe they could support in terms of a property tax increase, or how important they believe teacher salaries are as compared to other district needs or whether consolidation or closure of some schools should be sped up to save the district money.
A town hall can be helpful and may solidify what the public might support, but a rally to call out commissioners who voted against the tax increase or the wheel tax resolution, or to rehash any funding for fiscal 2020 — a fiscal year already underway — is a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.