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A look at the Hamilton County Department of Education's 2016-2017 budget

"Everything that we do is directed towards the students," said Jordan. "People talk about transparency. We are transparent. I want to go beyond transparency all the way to understandability."

Whether or not you have kids headed back to school, you're likely paying for it if you live in Hamilton County.

The Hamilton County Department of Education is the largest government agency in the county, receiving the most taxpayer dollars.

This year, the budget for the Hamilton County Department of Education will total $417 million.

It's mostly funded by Tennessee's sales tax, local sales tax, the county property tax, and the federal government.

Hamilton County Assistant Superintendent of Finance Christie Jordan says the county controls about $363 million, and the bulk of the money, more than 80%, is spent on salaries and benefits.

"When you think about it, I mean, that's our business," Jordan told NewsChannel 9. "You know, the schools are primarily comprised of people."

What does one budget dollar buy? 82 cents goes to employees and materials that are in schools, 4 cents to the Central Office, 4 cents to transportation, and 10 cents to operations and maintenance.

But while analyzing the budget is easy for the Department of Education, it's not so user-friendly for parents and other taxpayers.

"That is the biggest challenge," said Jordan.

The budget is nearly 300 pages long.

Elizabeth Crews, Outgoing Executive Director of UnifiEd, says her organization pushed for a simple Citizen's Guide to the Budget in 2015.

The county accommodated their request but it hasn't been updated since then.

"I would love to see an audit, an independent audit, not from the state but an independent audit of the school system so that we as a community can really learn where our money is being spent," said Crews.

But Jordan insists the school system is using its funds wisely.

"Everything that we do is directed towards the students," said Jordan. "People talk about transparency. We are transparent. I want to go beyond transparency all the way to understandability."

Jordan says to stay on track, this year's budget was objective-based.

For the first time, the department focused it around three primary goals: workforce readiness, literacy, and reducing the achievement gap at low-performing schools.

However, Joda Thongnopnua with the Metro Ideas Project, a group that has been studying the budget in depth over the past few months, says there's more that can be done.

"It gets really complicated really quickly for somebody just wanting to understand how much money goes into their school," said Thongnopnua. "It's pretty difficult."

He says if the district budgeted based on each school, taxpayers would get a much better sense of who might be receiving too much or too little.

"Until we get a level of specificity at the school level, we only have a really fuzzy picture of what's happening across the entire county," said Thongnopnua.

The Metro Ideas Project spent 4 months crunching the numbers to determine how much is spent on each school in Hamilton County. You can see their findings at metroideas.org.




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