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Staff File Photo By Erin O. Smith / Hamilton County Commissioner David Sharpe offered the resolution last week that commissioners rejected that would have put a wheel tax referendum — ostensibly funding teacher salaries — on the March ballot.

Until Hamilton County teachers are paid salaries at or above those of their compatriots in adjoining Tennessee or North Georgia counties, we'll always be on the side of raises where possible.

That's why we were shocked earlier this year when Hamilton County Board of Education members, teachers union negotiators and district officials decided teachers would get no raise for the 2019-2020 school year but only a $1,500 bonus.

It would not be recurring money, but it worked out to a temporary 3.75% raise for first-year teachers and a 2.16% raise for 25-year teachers with doctorates.

For those who received a 3.75% jump, it was the highest raise teachers had received in at least the past five years, according to Times Free Press archives. For those getting the 2.16% bump, it was a bigger nudge than they'd had in two of the last five years.

Overall, it meant teachers — for this year — are getting at least 10.66% to 11.75% more than they did five years ago. Not all professions can claim that.

So, despite their negotiators having a hand in what they earn this year, nearly 70 teachers chose in an open letter released Sunday to heap blame on the five county commissioners who voted against a hasty attempt last week to put a referendum on the ballot to adopt a wheel tax. That $60 annual wheel tax, if adopted by voters next March, ostensibly would have gone to teacher salaries. Yet Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said the county could not legally earmark such money for teacher salaries.

We advocated — and will usually advocate — for letting voters have their say. We believe, even though many county residents want to see teachers earn more, voters would have defeated a wheel tax referendum. But if they had voted for it, we could have argued that at least 50 percent, plus one, of registered voters who went to the polls voted in favor of the tax.

So Commissioners Chester Bankston, Tim Boyd, Randy Fairbanks, Greg Martin and Sabrena Smedley, for their individual reasons, voted against the resolution. Some may have felt the funds could not be earmarked for salaries, some might have believed they hadn't had enough time to study the ramifications of a wheel tax, some may have thought the expense of putting a referendum on the ballot that was likely to lose was too extravagant, and some simply may have thought teachers didn't deserve higher salaries than they are getting.

Smedley, despite earlier having suggested a referendum for a tax increase when a July poll indicated 65% support for increased public education funding, said during last week's commission meeting she felt teachers had been used in a "bait and switch" campaign during budget negotiations.

The state, after all, had provided for a 2.5% raise for teachers in its fiscal 2020 budget. Then, school board members chose to seek a 5% raise for teachers in an overall schools budget request that would have required a 34-cent property tax increase. When commissioners wouldn't go for such a large increase, school board members, union negotiators and district officials chose to ignore the state raise and offer only the bonus.

They preferred, they said, that the state's 19% increase in growth money for the district fund new positions school officials said were needed.

To some, forgoing the permanent raise for the temporary bonus may have seemed magnanimous — teachers, as they always do, putting student and school needs ahead of their own needs. But whatever one thinks of the decision, it was a choice.

However, we believed there was room — and time — to negotiate for higher salaries and some of the new positions with a smaller property tax rise. But that's not the route district officials and negotiators took.

The wheel tax suggestion, coming only two months after the bonus acceptance, easily may have been viewed as the bait and switch Smedley suggested.

One thing is certain. The issue of school needs is not going away. District officials will be back next year asking to fund some of the positions that didn't get funded this year with what would have been the teacher raises. They'll be asking again for raises for teachers, seeking parity for them with neighboring counties. And the long-awaited schools facilities plan, which officials received this summer, will need to be dealt with. After all, what's the use of soliciting and paying for such an exhaustive study if there are no plans to implement it.

All that takes money, and we hope if additional funding is necessary that it comes as a result of collaboration instead of pop-up tax suggestions and grumbling letters.

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