Despite several years of tight budgets, flat test scores, and leadership turnover, it is a good time to be working in the Hamilton County Department of Education’s central office.

Documents obtained by Channel 3 show a wave of recent hires by new Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson is resulting in the largest central office staff in years.

For the past decade, superintendents have responded to county commissioners’ pleas to “trim the fat” by eliminating positions and not replacing some employees who retired or resigned.  But a recent study by community business leaders recommended additional staffing in the school system’s administrative ranks.  Dr. Johnson, in office since July 2017, has wasted no time recruiting and hiring new administrators in what he calls the “C-Suite”, installing “chiefs” of various departments. Although it is difficult to do a year-by-year comparison due to the new titles, Dr. Johnson stresses that the reorganization will be “budget neutral” compared to years past.

Most school board members have been supportive of Dr. Johnson’s actions during his first eight months on the job.  However, District 8 representative David Testerman has questions about the new hires.  “We keep asking for an organizational chart, but we still haven’t seen it,” he said.

District 1 representative Rhonda Thurman also has concerns. “There is no way this is budget neutral,” she said. “We are going right back to where we were before, filling up the central office with big salaries, while the classrooms don’t have enough money for basic supplies.” 

For the first time, the county schools employ more than 40 department heads and administrators (including principals) with salaries in excess of $100,000.  “We’re replacing five assistant superintendents by calling them chief instead, and then adding two more of them,” Thurman said. “How is that budget neutral?”

The position directly under Dr. Johnson’s is raising a few eyebrows. For the first time ever, Hamilton County Department of Education has a chief of staff.  Newcomer Dr. Nakia Towns Edwards was previously an official with the Tennessee Department of Education, overseeing state achievement testing during a difficult few years.  

“We keep asking for an organizational chart, but we still haven’t seen it.”

When announcing her hiring, Dr. Johnson said, “She is from the Tennessee Department of Education where she served as assistant commissioner of Data and Research where she spearheaded the use of data to inspire continuous improvement in public schools across the state.” Her starting salary with the Hamilton County Department of Education (HCDE) is $126,856. Her responsibilities include “working across all departments in Hamilton County Schools to impact academic opportunities and achievement for children.” He added, "When it comes to salaries, she was making far more than that at the state level."

Thurman said, “I thought we hired a superintendent at $197,000 to do run the staff.”

HEFTY SALARY INCREASES FOR CENTRAL OFFICE

Some Board members were also surprised to learn that other recently filled positions came with hefty salary increases.  Amy Katcher left her post as communications director late last year at a salary of $61,474.  Her replacement, Tim Hensley, is earning considerably more, making $79,547 a year. Dr. Johnson said, "Tim is doing a lot to bring that office where it needs to be.  In his previous position in Floyd County, Georgia, he was making considerably more."

Hensley, who serves as the spokesperson for the administration, said despite the immediate appearance of new positions and salary increases, taxpayer funds are being used wisely.  He points to $292,000 in savings from restructured or abolished positions realized while going through the restructuring process.  “The plan is for the restructure to be budget-neutral for the system going into next year’s budget,” he told Channel 3.

Dr. Johnson says it is important to note that school district administrators in other large cities are compensated at a much higher rate than Hamilton County. In Nashville, the pay for chief officers has increased from $149,000 in 2014 to $185,000 currently.   The same is true in Memphis, where executive salaries range from $139,000 to $197,000.

“The plan is for the restructure to be budget-neutral for the system going into next year’s budget”

Longtime Assistant Superintendent Stacy Stewart, who left her post after declining a reassignment, was making $118,480 after 32 years with HCDE.  Keith Fogleman, a human resources consultant who was self-employed for the past four years, was named chief talent officer at an annual salary of $120,100.

For the first time, the accounting and finance department includes three managers, each earning more than $96,000 a year.  The director of finance assumed new responsibilities in 2017, boosting his salary from $64,022 to $97,826, an increase of more than 50 percent.  Longtime assistant superintendent for accounting and budgeting Christie Jordan has also a taken on a larger role, with her salary rising from $93,555 in 2016 to $118,480 in 2017.  New Chief Business Officer Don Hall has worked for school systems in six states. He was hired at an annual salary of $117,832.  Hensley said, “This is most likely a temporary situation. The department is being reorganized in the restructure work and will look different going into next year.”

Marsha Drake, who had been director of student services at an annual salary of $106,226, is now chief equity officer, making $117,263. Hensley said, “The position includes the former duties and has also added exceptional education, ESOL, counselor services and all components that impact equity in the system.  The job function for chief equity officer will have a much broader scope than student services alone.”  

Stephanie Hinton, who began the year as principal of East Side Elementary, has been named to another newly created position, director of teaching and learning.  Her new salary is $113,155.  Hensley said, “She will be doing very focused work related to instruction based on state standards and the changes that have been made in standards from the state in recent years.  The position will also bring focus to standards and how they impact improved performance on TNReady state assessments.”

The only recent administrative hire at a lower salary than before is in the Exceptional Education Department.  Margaret Abernathy, a 31-year school system employee, retired at a salary of $109,075.  Her replacement, newcomer Garfield Adams, most recently a middle school principal in Oak Ridge, is making $106,854 annually.

SOME POSITIONS CHANGE, WHILE SALARIES REMAIN UNCHANGED

Longtime Assistant Superintendent Dr. Lee McDade, who handles a wide variety of responsibilities including discipline and transportation, has a new title, Chief of School Operations.  His salary remains unchanged at $128,209.  McDade is among many Hamilton County administrators who are eligible for the recently announced early retirement incentive program, but it is uncertain how many will sign up for the program.  Superintendent Johnson says the program will result in substantial savings for HCDE.

Dr. Justin Robertson, formerly Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and instruction since May 2016, is now Chief Schools Officer. His salary remains at $121,000.

Jill Levine, formerly Chief Academic Officer, is now Chief of the Opportunity Zone, overseeing the district’s efforts to improve its lowest-performing schools.  Her salary remains at $115,886.

Zac Brown, a secondary director in the Opportunity Zone, is serving as interim principal of Brainerd High School at his director’s salary of $118,380. He replaced Uras Agee, who was transferred to an exceptional education position at Washington Alternative School.  Agee’s salary remains the same at $105,601.

RETIREES, RETURNEES, AND ELIMINATED POSITIONS

Some of the new positions, although with new titles, may replace salaries from recently retired administrators, five of whom left the district in 2017.  Many of the new central office staffers are moving up from the ranks of principal, which will require additional promotions from the teaching ranks.

Among positions that have been eliminated is magnet school director, once held by Aimee Randolph, who has since retired. Hensley said, “There is no director of magnet school position in the new organizational structure.  The magnet schools are covered by area directors and fall under the chief school officer.”

Hensley also confirmed that former Interim Superintendent Dr. Kirk Kelly, who narrowly lost his bid for the permanent job last year to Dr. Johnson, is back at work at the central office.  Hensley, said, “Dr. Kelly is not a salaried employee, but is working on a limited contract basis in the Opportunity Zone.  His contract work is with Title I and is covered by federal funds.”

LEADERSHIP COMMITTEE, TRANSITION TEAM RECOMMENDATIONS FOLLOWED

Although some on the school board question the number of changes and new positions, Hensley said, “Chattanooga and Hamilton County have made it clear that the status quo is not what the community wants from its schools or school leaders.” He points to the formation of a transition team shortly after Dr. Johnson took office, and said the new superintendent is being responsive to the findings of the group.

“The development of a C-suite for the system to streamline leadership was a recommendation of the Community Transition Team involving key leaders from across the county.  It was also the recommendation from a group representing Mayor Coppinger’s office presented in May 2017,” said Hensley, who also pointed out that was prior to Dr. Johnson being chosen to the lead the school district.

According to the recommendations from Mayor Coppinger’s group of business leaders, “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. (The school system) may sometimes be inefficient because it has too few staff at central office, not too many," the report concludes.”

“JUDGE US ON THE RESULTS”

 Responding to potential criticism of the moves, and concerns of spending “outside the classroom,” Hensley said, “Change is hard but it is necessary.  With change comes the opportunity to review roles and functions to improve the academic performance of children. The system is reviewing every position and its responsibilities to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness.  All restructuring is designed to help children meet the challenges of the future and achieve the goal of Hamilton County Schools becoming the fastest improving school system in Tennessee.”

Commenting on the escalating salaries of some central office staffers, Hamilton County Education Association President Dan Liner points out that a four percent pay raise, which HCDE employees received last year, translates to more money for higher-paid employees.  “If a teacher making $37,000 a year gets that raise, it’s about $1,500,” Liner said. But if an assistant superintendent making $125,000 a year gets the same raise, he or she gets an additional $5,000 per year, so the gap widens. That same percentage raise goes to all certified employees,” Liner said.

School Board Chair Dr. Steve Highlander says he understands concerns about new positions and pay raises in the central office but is willing to give Dr. Johnson and his new team a chance.  “I don’t want this to lead to more negativity because we’ve had plenty of that the past few years,” Highlander said. “But we also need more transparency.  People need to know what we’re doing, and how much we’re spending, and then judge us on the results.”