Fewer schools, teach­ers

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - BY KENDI A. RAIN­WA­TER STAFF WRITER

In 2009, a group of prom­i­nent Chat­tanooga busi­ness lead­ers ad­vised the Hamil­ton County Schools district to cut costs by con­sol­i­dat­ing build­ings and trim­ming staff. Now, an­other group is rec­om­mend­ing sim­i­lar ac­tion.

For the past six months, a group of 11 busi­ness and com­mu­nity lead­ers has been qui­etly an­a­lyz­ing the school district’s bud­get and op­er­a­tions, and mem­bers have com­piled a 70-page re­port de­tail­ing strate­gies the county and district can im­ple­ment to bring longterm sav­ings and boost stu­dent out­comes. Among the find­ings:

› Re­duce the num­ber of schools and teach­ers to boost ef­fi­ciency and stu­dent out­comes.

› In­crease teacher and prin­ci­pal salaries with sav­ings from the con­sol­i­da­tion of schools and re­duc­tion in staff, and align teacher com­pen­sa­tion to qual­ity.

› Im­prove ac­count­abil­ity by the county hir­ing two full-time per­for­mance au­di­tors and the district em­ploy­ing a chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and a chief tal­ent of­fi­cer.

› Es­tab­lish a new tax

ded­i­cated to schools in­fras­truc­ture, tech and in­no­va­tion.

› Make the district part of the plan­ning com­mis­sion ap­proval process.

Nick De­cosimo, a mem­ber of the group, said the goal of the re­view was to see where the district can im­prove and start think­ing more strate­gi­cally.

“We’d re­ally love to see some of the sug­ges­tions we have made be put into place and some long-term strat­egy im­ple­mented in our schools,” said De­cosimo, man­ag­ing share­holder at El­liott Davis and De­cosimo. “We’d also like to see some good busi­ness prac­tices im­ple­mented.”

But the re­al­ity is the district can’t be more strate­gic with­out more rev­enue, he added.

“There has to be an in­vest­ment for fu­ture sav­ings,” De­cosimo said.

Next week, Hamil­ton County Mayor Jim Cop­pinger will present his bud­get for the up­com­ing fis­cal year to the county com­mis­sion, which hasn’t voted to raise taxes for schools in 12 years. Cop­pinger hasn’t sig­naled whether he will ask the com­mis­sion to ap­prove a tax in­crease for schools.

But the group’s re­port has been pre­sented pri­vately to mem­bers of the Hamil­ton County Com­mis­sion in the past cou­ple of weeks, and it rec­om­mends the county cre­ate a new tax levy ded­i­cated to school in­fras­truc­ture, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion. That would help fund school con­sol­i­da­tion and free up sav­ings for the district to spend on teacher qual­ity and re­duc­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of poverty in cer­tain schools, the re­port rec­om­mends.

Cop­pinger asked the group to con­duct an in­de­pen­dent and neu­tral re­view of the school district’s fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion last fall.

Some of the things out­lined in the re­port are eas­ier to im­ple­ment than oth­ers, he said Tues­day, adding that he agrees with most of the rec­om­men­da­tions.

Cop­pinger said the group agrees the school district is un­der­funded, but tax­pay­ers aren’t con­vinced the district is op­er­at­ing ef­fi­ciently and ef­fec­tively.

“We have to be able to show to the pub­lic what more money would ac­com­plish, and where you’re go­ing to see the im­prove­ments,” Cop­pinger said.

This re­port, he said, could be a step in that di­rec­tion.

Hamil­ton County Schools has a lower stu­dent-to-teacher ra­tio than other large school sys­tems in Ten­nessee, ac­cord­ing to the re­port, the re­sult of hav­ing fewer stu­dents per school. Con­sol­i­dat­ing schools would al­low the district to re­duce the num­ber of teach­ers and main­te­nance and util­ity costs, pro­duc­ing an­nual sav­ings of $15 mil­lion to $20 mil­lion, the re­port es­ti­mates.

The district should de­velop a multi-year cap­i­tal plan fo­cused on con­sol­i­da­tion of schools and teach­ers and re­duc­ing the con­cen­tra­tion of poverty in the county’s schools to im­prove stu­dent per­for­mance, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“Any new in­vest­ment in school in­fras­truc­ture should be as­sessed on this ba­sis,” the re­port states.

The sav­ings from con­sol­i­da­tion should be used to in­crease teacher salaries and im­prove teacher qual­ity, the re­port ar­gues. Decades of re­search show teach­ers are the most im­por­tant in-school fac­tor for boost­ing aca­demic growth, and poor and mi­nor­ity stu­dents in Hamil­ton County now are much more likely to learn from the district’s least ef­fec­tive teach­ers, ac­cord­ing to school data.

The group rec­om­mends in­creas­ing start­ing and max­i­mum pay for teach­ers as a tool to re­cruit and re­tain high-per­form­ing ones. It also sug­gests of­fer­ing sign­ing bonuses for new teach­ers and in­cen­tive bonuses for highly ef­fec­tive and high-de­mand teach­ers.

The district also needs to re­form its cur­rent health ben­e­fits pro­gram and re­duce ben­e­fits for re­tirees be­fore Medi­care el­i­gi­bil­ity, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

The re­port notes the school sys­tem’s central of­fice is not bloated, but in­stead lacks the ca­pac­ity to ef­fec­tively plan. The group rec­om­mends the district hire a chief in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer, chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer and a chief tal­ent of­fi­cer.

“[Hamil­ton County Schools] may some­times be in­ef­fi­cient be­cause it has too few staff at central of­fice, not too many,” the re­port states, which lim­its its abil­ity to plan strate­gi­cally.

The county also should hire two full-time per­for­mance au­di­tors to look for op­por­tu­ni­ties for sav­ings and eval­u­ate over­all per­for­mance within the district, help­ing to in­crease ef­fi­ciency and ac­count­abil­ity, the re­port states.

A pro­posed new tax levy would help fund school con­sol­i­da­tions, free­ing up new money for the district to rein­vest in class­room pri­or­i­ties. That new rev­enue also would dou­ble the fund­ing for cap­i­tal main­te­nance and build­ing re­pair in hopes of elim­i­nat­ing the district’s list of more than $200 mil­lion in de­ferred main­te­nance.

The re­port also calls for the county to stop billing the school district $3.7 mil­lion in prop­erty as­ses­sor fees. And it pro­poses that the new rev­enue from the tax cover the $5 mil­lion a year the district bud­gets for main­te­nance. By tak­ing away those two costs from the district, Hamil­ton County Schools would have an ad­di­tional $8.7 mil­lion in new rev­enue within its ex­ist­ing bud­get.

The pro­posed new tax also would re­lieve the county of the $24 mil­lion in school-re­lated debt ser­vice, the re­port states.

Tif­fanie Robin­son, fi­nance chair­woman of the Hamil­ton County Board of Education, said she’s glad this group came to­gether to lend its ex­per­tise to the school district.

“Some­thing that has been miss­ing from [the] central of­fice is the abil­ity to bud­get strate­gi­cally,” she said, adding that the re­port will be help­ful for the board mov­ing for­ward and that she plans for the

board to dis­cuss it in an up­com­ing fi­nance com­mit­tee meet­ing.

“I hope the board will adopt some of the things put into the re­port,” she said. “And I hope the com­mis­sion will do the same and the central of­fice, too.”

Back in 2009, a cit­i­zens’ ad­vi­sory panel ap­pointed by the school board rec­om­mended that the district cut costs by con­sol­i­dat­ing schools and the num­ber of teach­ers in the district.

Hamil­ton County Schools was fac­ing a $20.2 mil­lion pro­jected deficit at the time, which the ad­vi­sory panel be­lieved was largely due to a bloated per­son­nel count and small and un­der­used school build­ings. The group also said the district and county were not prop­erly fund­ing school main­te­nance.

But the school board and district lead­ers ig­nored the rec­om­men­da­tions, and the ad­vi­sory panel stopped meet­ing.

Kurt Faires, a lo­cal at­tor­ney, was on the 2009 panel, and he said at the time the group warned Hamil­ton County Schools the prob­lems would grow if no ac­tion was taken.

“The fact that we are still talk­ing about school con­sol­i­da­tion eight years later and noth­ing has hap­pened is a prob­lem,” Faires said Tues­day.

“Twelve years with­out a tax in­crease [for schools] is un­con­scionable.”

Cop­pinger said Tues­day that over the years tax­pay­ers have not been con­vinced of the need to in­crease school fund­ing.

“We see the need,” he said. “But in fair­ness, we need to con­vince the tax­pay­ers of the county there is a need.”

Cop­pinger said when a per­ma­nent su­per­in­ten­dent is cho­sen to lead the school district, there will be an op­por­tu­nity for the county to look at the re­port with them in de­tail, and po­ten­tially start work­ing to im­ple­ment some of the strate­gies.

De­cosimo said he hopes the school district and county will take ac­tion on ev­ery­thing out­lined in the re­port, say­ing he be­lieves the en­tire plan needs to be im­ple­mented and not just some as­pects of it. He said the group has been work­ing on the project be­cause its mem­bers want to see pub­lic schools im­prove.

“I think ev­ery per­son in Chat­tanooga should care about our schools and want to see them some­how do bet­ter,” he said.


Susan Dorsa teaches her fourth-grade class at Barger Academy ear­lier this year about plant cell struc­ture us­ing the Sci­ence Sparks! cur­ricu­lum she helped de­velop.

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