If you're looking to see who among your local elected officials actually work to have your back when the going is tough and raises don't happen and schools are falling down, look no further than the list of officials who showed up for a Sunday town hall to talk to 200 people about topics related to funding education at the Brainerd Youth and Family Center in Chattanooga.
Seven elected officials took the hot seats — four Board of Education members, two Hamilton County commissioners and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger. The school board members were Tucker McClendon, Jenny Hill, Tiffanie Robinson and Kathy Lennon. The commissioners were Katherlyn Geter and David Sharpe.
This came after more than 1,300 people signed a Hamilton County teacher petition calling for increased teacher pay and improved public school funding. The petition came to life earlier this month, about the same time that a group of teachers — loosely identified as Hamilton County United — called on all elected officials to join them for the Sunday town hall.
Just a few weeks before, an open letter from more than 70 teachers called out Commissioners Randy Fairbanks, Sabrena Smedley, Tim Boyd, Greg Martin and Chester Bankston for voting against putting a $60 wheel tax referendum on the March primary ballot for us voters to decide. And, no, none of those folks attended Sunday's town hall.
Earlier this year, the commission also killed (by voting simply to remove a schools operating increase — the first in 14 years — from the budget) a 34-cent property tax increase included in the first round of FY 2020 budget proposals. That tax increase — one that a professional poll found 61 percent of Hamilton County voters supported — specifically would have directed more funding to public education.
Did we mention that over the summer, the entire community was shown a long-awaited consulting report on Hamilton County's school buildings — a report that shows our schools have a $1.36 billion capital needs price tag. The consultants said that even with a sweeping set of preliminary suggestions for money-saving school closures and consolidations over 10 years, the damages still tally $855 million.
That recent past was the backdrop in mid-November as the petition for better teacher pay and improved school funding began gaining steam. One of the signers, Carolina Souza, an instructional coach at McConnell Elementary School, told Times Free Press reporter Meghan Mangrum that she wants the community to realize the movement isn't just about teacher pay but about the value Hamilton County puts on education in general.
"I just wish the whole narrative would change. It's not just about teacher compensation, but really about education for students," Souza said. "I would just like a chance for everyone to come together and really figure out a way to give education in Hamilton County the respect that it deserves. I really feel like right now it's not valued and it's not important [and] I feel like that's the message that's being trickled down to students."
But already, some of the elected officials who didn't attend the teachers' town hall had talked with the Times Free Press about why they had closed their minds to that call for putting our money where our students are.
Commissioner Boyd, who makes no bones about distrusting the school board's spending, said he'd never met with a group of police officers or group of county employees at their "demand" and he would not attend a meeting called by a teacher.
"I see this as an opportunity to orchestrate some drama on the issue of teacher pay. I see it as a decisive move [by] this small group of teachers who are screaming and yelling," Boyd said, adding that the commission was not the appropriate place to go with teacher pay concerns. "I'll reiterate that you're barking up the wrong tree. This commission gives a lump sum amount of money to the school board and they allocate it where they see fit. If they want to talk about teacher pay, they don't need to be talking to Tim Boyd."
School board member Thurman echoed Boyd's sentiments.
"Everybody needs to stay in their own lane, [the commission] give us the money and we spend it," she said. "If teachers are the most important people in the classroom then we, the school board, need to put them at the top of the list. Going back to the commission and asking for more money is not the answer."
Let's review: Our school system has not seen a boost in its operating budget in 14 years (outside of normal property tax revenue growth). Our county's school facilities, even with sweeping school closures and consolidations, face $855 million in capital needs.
Yet five of nine county commissioners — none of whom attended Sunday's town hall — earlier this year voted against a 34-cent tax increase, which would have funded a 5% raise for teachers and boosted the school system's operating budget. Instead, commissioners told the school board to once again send them a balanced budget. When that balanced budget came back without a raise for teachers (other than a state-funded 2.5% increase), they decried the lack of county raises for teachers but excused themselves of responsibility, saying they do not have line-item veto power of the department's budget and were simply the "funding body."
We wonder what part of "funding body" these commissioners don't get. And we wonder why they're afraid to give us a chance to vote on these issues for ourselves.