School Board Needs More Leaders, Not Followers - And Response

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

It is disappointing that Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson’s contract is being prematurely extended and that the amount of his compensation package has been significantly increased based on hopes of performance improvements. The disfunction of the School Board’s discussion Monday night is reason enough for Thursday night’s vote to be reconsidered or delayed.

Dr. Johnson is the highest paid government employee in Hamilton County after less than three years. A majority of the Board has rushed to extend the contract out of fear that the superintendent will leave, even though there is nothing documented that supports that position.  

We do not agree that in addition to his $240,000 proposed salary he will be given $20,000 in incentive bonuses - as if those benchmarks upon which the incentives are based should be not expectations in his base salary. We find it curious that an additional $10,000 is being contributed for his retirement. This structuring is indicative of the budget obfuscation we have been dealing with for the past few years. In round numbers, including benefits, the value of Dr. Johnson’s new compensation package is around $1.3 million, the annual value of the contract is around $325,000. 

We support a competitive salary for exceptional achievement, but we are not in favor of paying for speculative performance or what supporters of last summer’s $34 million tax increase called “hope and promise.” It is disconcerting that the School Board would negotiate in crisis mode as it publicly frets and wrings its hands that the superintendent might leave. Is this how to negotiate?

This contract fire drill was initiated by the Board, but most members showed little preparation for a discussion of the contract Monday night. That is alarming. The issue here is not with the superintendent; it is with the School Board and its governance of the school system.

Less than one year ago, the School Board requested a record-breaking $34 million annual increase to fund its operating budget. Since the property tax increase was wisely turned down by the County Commission, the Department of Education had sufficient funding to hire 189 new staff positions, give two bonuses totaling $2,050 to every certified employee, will vote Thursday evening to give all certified employees a 2.5 percent salary increase, and approve a new four-year contract with Dr. Johnson. 

In round numbers, Dr. Johnson’s initial contract was $198,000 and his new contract will be $250,000, including the pension contributions. That’s a 21 percent increase. Not bad work if you can get it.

“Trust the School Board” is what taxpayers are told by community and elected leaders. Trust is earned, and earned over time, and the way this process has been handled does nothing to build trust in the way the School Board spends nearly a half billion tax dollars. With more than a decade of history, the Chattanoogan.com poll has proven to fairly represent the view of the conservative majority of citizens in Hamilton County, and the early contract extension and raise for the superintendent is running 85 percent against as of Wednesday morning. 

There are 29 elections over the next three years that will chart the future of Hamilton County, and elections have consequences. The cycle starts with four School Board elections in August, and it matters who governs. The events surrounding the process of the superintendent’s contract extension is evidence that the School Board needs more leaders, not followers.

Tom Decosimo, on Behalf of The Good Government Coalition

* * * 

Hiring a person of dubious qualifications for a job running a $450,000,000 a year business is what this board does.  But that’s not enough, then they help his wife get a job with the mayor for $125,000 in salary and benefits.  Mr. Johnson has denied the hiring of his wife to work for the mayor had anything to do with him. 

Mr. Decosimo shows that Johnson’s salary is about a $325,000 a year package.  One must consider the taxpayer bill for his family as $325,000 + $125,000 = $450,000 per year.  That’s the real cost, or what we know at this time. Secured in a long-term contract we can expect the superintendent to be speaking a lot out of town (more fees) looking for his next lucrative contract. 

This school board is about as qualified as the person they hire. After all, they did hire Johnson who had never made out a school district budget in his entire six year career since his gradation from Trevecca in Nashville in 2010.  They are all about spending the money, your money.  Remember Johnson/board wanted $50 million, the final ask was $34 million.  But wait, there’s more.  The “consultants” they hired want $1.5 billion for new schools.  With this “job security” expect this to be Johnson’s next crusade, between packing his bags for his next gig.

Mr. Decosimo is correct, the larger problem lies with the school board.  Rather than folding the election into the primary and general election for all other county and state officials, we have in essence a primary in which the person with the plurality gets the job.  Typically this person does not have a majority of the vote.  It's no wonder they don’t have the support of the majority of the people. 

This can be fixed.  We should insist on a board elected like the county commission in time and process.  An elected superintendent would be nice too. I would imagine he might get polls scoring higher than 16 percent and we could work together for a change.

Jim Folkner



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