About two dozen interested citizens attended a budget information session hosted by Hamilton County School Board member Tucker McClendon, Tuesday evening at East Ridge High School.
The school board recently passed a $443 million budget for fiscal year 2019-20, an increase of $34 million over the previous year. The additional request would in part fund an additional 10 special education teachers and 30 assistants, 14 counselors, 15 attendance specialists, and provide for a five percent pay raise for teachers. It would also necessitate a county property tax increase.
“The budget is a statement of values,” Dr. Bryan Johnson told those gathered in the library of the school. “We want you to see what we value.”
To see the complete budget click on the link below:
Dr. Johnson said he wanted to stress that Hamilton County schools are at a crossroads. Students are gaining ground in achievement levels. He said people are asking why the schools need more money if they are performing better.
“In order to take it to the next level,” he said. “You can only go so far, and in order to get to the next level we need more resources.”
Dr. Johnson said the schools need more counselors, more special education teachers and assistants, and more truant officers to “free up teachers to teach.”
Chief Business Officer Brent Goldberg gave a PowerPoint slide presentation which included all the numbers. He pointed out the school system was accelerating student achievement with the new proposed spending. The new budget is engaging the community by eliminating general instruction school fees to provide funds for materials in core academic areas. He noted that the system has more efficient and effective operations; the budget takes $15.1 million from its fund balance to support capital maintenance at 48 schools.
McClendon pointed out that East Ridge High and Middle Schools will benefit from this by getting new windows and blinds, and painting the interior and exterior of the aged buildings.
After the presentation, school officials and Mayor Jim Coppinger took questions from the audience.
One woman asked if school officials could identify any cuts in the budget, of which 81 percent goes to pay employees’ salaries and benefits.
“Not really,” McClendon said. “I spoke with Dr. Johnson, and I truly believe this budget gets us to where we need to be.”
McClendon, who voted to approve the $443 million budget which will necessitate at least a 34-cent property tax increase, acknowledged the presence of Commissioner Tim Boyd at the meeting. Last week Boyd had his own education budget community meeting in which Boyd questioned the need for increased spending and a tax increase.
McClendon said he and Boyd have a good working relationship. “I voted how I felt I needed to vote,” he said.
Another person asked what the school system was doing to accommodate more students in the system? There are currently about 44,000 students in Hamilton County schools and the system spends about $10,000 a year per student, or about $8 per hour that student is in school.
McClendon said he was the point person on the school board for school facilities. There are 79 schools in the system. Growth is in the plan for exploding communities like East Brainerd, Apison, and Ooltewah.
Dr. Johnson said there is about 7.5 million square feet of school buildings in the system. The HCDE spends about a dollar per square foot on maintaining that space. That is far less than the $3 per square foot state average. He said there is a $19.5 million gap in deferred maintenance.
“We need to ‘right-size’ our school system,” Dr. Johnson said. “These are going to be tough conversations to have.”
Dr. Johnson said the issue of adequately maintaining 79 buildings is a “huge elephant.” He said HCDE would be looking at “every option,” including consolidation.
Dr. Johnson said the school system has challenged the system’s magnet schools to increase their enrollment. If a building is under-utilized, “we are saying maximize this space.”
McClendon said that the issue of consolidating schools has been “kicked down the road for 30 years.” It is now “at a boiling point.”
Dr. Johnson said in the future there will be “uncomfortable conversations” about school closures and rezoning of students.
“Children’s desires and needs will always come first,” he said.
School representatives fielded another question concerning the five percent raise to teachers. In the private sector a five percent raise is unheard of. What do you tell the taxpayers about giving a kind of raise that they’ve never seen in their job?
Dr. Nakia Edwards, Chief of Staff for Dr. Johnson, said that wages grew last year across the country by four percent. “We have to compete with that.”
As the meeting was concluding one man said that Mayor Coppinger was coming “perilously close” to crossing an ethical line as an advocate for the $34 million HCDE budget increase. The man asked Coppinger if he shouldn’t be more adversarial instead of justifying the increase?
Coppinger said that he advocates for education. When new companies are considering relocating to Hamilton County they need to have a capable work force from which to hire.
“If I thought for one minute they (HCDE) were being fiscally irresponsible I would challenge (the budget),” Coppinger said.
In coming weeks the Hamilton County Commission will vote on the county’s entire budget for 2019-20. The HCDE budget of $443 million has already been approved by the Hamilton County School Board. That $443 million figure represents 65 percent of the entire county budget, officials said.