County School Officials Propose Taking Up To $8 Million From Fund Balance; Employees To Get 1-Time $1,500 Bonus; More Teacher Support Positions To Be Filled

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Hamilton County School officials are proposing to take up to $8 million out of the Rainy Day Fund, while giving employees one-time $1,500 bonuses and hiring more teacher support personnel.

An earlier plan to provide a 2.5 percent pay increase costing $6 million would be scrapped. Instead, that money would be used to hire up to 100 more teacher aides, including school counselors, literacy aides and discipline support workers.

The proposal goes to the County School Board on Thursday night, then the "balanced budget" goes back to the County Commission.

The commission earlier voted 5-4 against a schools proposal requiring a 34-cent property tax increase. It included hiring 350 new school employees.

The reworked budget already included some 86 new employees. With the use of fund balance, that would rise to around 186 of the proposed 350 being included.

At a pep rally-style press conference at Hixson Middle School, officials of the Hamilton County Education Association vowed to begin a push now for a budget next year that includes a 10 percent raise for teachers. The initial budget this year had a five percent increase.

Officials said the reworked budget gets the starting base salary for teachers above $40,000 for the first time. It would be $40,050. In addition, officials said nearly 900 additional teachers will earn step increases this year and going forward. The average step increase in about $800, with a range from zero to $1,400. Officials said the change would favor teachers who stay with the system.

The one-time bonus would be "for all full-time employees". It would count toward retirement. The plan would be to pay the bonus in November before Thanksgiving.

With the step increases and the one-time bonus, the range of pay increases would be from 2.2 percent to 7.8 percent.

Total teacher compensation would increase by an average of 4.7 percent.

Brent Goldberg, finance director, said under the plan the fund balance would go from around $36 million to around $28 million. He said, "That is still more than twice what is required by the state.

The schools earlier pulled $1 million from the savings to avoid parents having to pay many fees.An additional $6 million to $7 million would be taken to cover the salary moves and the new hires.

Officials said improved working conditions for teachers as a result of collaborative conference with the HCEA include doubling of life insurance from $20,000 to $40,000 per employee, adding early release days to the district calendar to allow for teacher planning, streamlining the pay scale and adding 30 steps for the advanced degree lane, providing teachers with a stipend for classroom preparation at the start of the year and establishing ongoing labor management teams "to continue improvements around whole teacher supports such as launching employee wellness clinics."

Bailey Payne, teacher at East Hamilton, said, "Most of our teachers whole-heartedly supported that initial budget proposal - as did the overwhelming majority of our school board. . . Yet five of our County Commissioners chose not to support the original budget. . . As a result of the Commission's choice to not support the district's proposal, our elected school board must now choose between increased pay for teachers or improved working conditions through better student supports."

Jim Boles, principal of CSAS, said, "It is no wonder that the current pay for Hamilton County teachers lags far behind other large districts and surrounding counties. Hamilton County has chosen to leave base salaries stagnant multiple years, whether during a recession or during an expansion."

He also said, "Going forward, Hamilton County must increase base pay for teachers by at least 10 percent. . ."

Larry Lewis, teacher at Hixson High, cited a poll that he said showed public support for teacher pay raises. He said Hixson "stands ready again to support and fund the necessary changes to equip our children for the 21st century and beyond."

Jeanette Omarkhail, HCEA president, said, "We are voters in Hamilton County. . . We have only just begun to organize our supporters to influence our elected officials to carry out the will of the people in support of public education and increased pay for teachers."

She said, "We will insist that the County Commission increase funding for schools to support a 10 percent raise for teachers and finally move our county into a competitive position that recognizes and values the work of teachers. This is no longer optional."

A number of the speakers said, "We will not - we cannot - continue to accept the status quo."

Supt. Bryan Johnson said, "I stand with our teachers and agree that we can no longer accept the status quo."

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