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Board Chair Teresa Jones (center) and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson at a work session on June 23, 2015.

Board Chair Teresa Jones (center) and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson at a work session on June 23, 2015.

Caroline Bauman

To tee up performance pay, Shelby County angling for software to simplify salary math

Shelby County Schools chief Dorsey Hopson tabled his bid to tie teacher pay to their ratings earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t laying the groundwork to push the issue in the future.

And his latest step — the proposed purchase of computer software to manage teacher salaries — could set the stage for some district employees to see their paychecks trimmed even without changes to the district’s pay plan.

Hopson asked the school board to authorize spending $30,000 a year on IBM software that would analyze salaries across the district. The board took a step toward approving the request at its meeting Tuesday evening.

The program would guarantee that the district is paying its employees a “fair and competitive salary as well as highlight any positions/employees that are currently overpaid,” according to documents that the district provided to the board.

As a result, Hopson told the board members, some district employees could have their salaries increased or decreased if the software shows that they are underpaid or overpaid relative to other employees at their level. Salaries across the district range widely because of the 2013 merger of Shelby County Schools and Memphis City schools.

He did not say how many people could be affected by the adjustments, how significant the adjustments would likely be, or when they would go into effect. But Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources, said the software would first be used to scrutinize the pay of non-teachers and that salaries would not be cut just because the program indicated that they were inflated.

“We’re just trying to get it all harmonized so we can moved forward,” Hopson told the board.

The district’s documents also note that the software would “allow for future budgeting as the district hopes to move toward a pay for performance model in the future.”

The model Hopson lobbied for unsuccessfully earlier this year would have tied teachers’ pay to their performance evaluations, which are based on test scores, student surveys, and observations by administrators.

It would be difficult for the three employees currently in charge of managing salaries to make those calculations, the district told the board. “If the system is not purchased, Compensation will have to rely on a manual process which is not the most efficient use of time, resources and staff,” the district’s board documents say.

Hopson put his performance-pay ambitions on hold in March amid pushback from teachers. Teachers argued that it was unfair to introduce a new compensation plan based on performance while the district is in the midst of changing its academic standards.

“We’re constantly asking them to do more with less. Teachers wanted to be heard,” he said at the time. “They felt like this process was too fast and we were forcing something down their throat.”

But state education officials have continued to ask districts to change the way they pay teachers, and Hopson has always indicated that he would resurrect the plan in the future. The documents about the software contract are a clear sign that his intentions have not changed.

Ken Foster, executive director of the Memphis Shelby County Teachers Association, said the group’s opposition to tying pay to “value-added” scores that assess students’ growth over time has not changed either. Value-added measures are part of the state-mandated evaluation system that would influence teacher pay under Hopson’s plan.

“We don’t see how it can structured to be fair,” Foster said. “Value-added models don’t have any connection to what’s going on in the classroom.”

For three years, the software would be paid for out of the district’s $90 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation before being covered by district funds, according to the documents. That grant, awarded in 2009, centered on boosting teacher quality and ensuring that the best teachers work in the highest-need schools.

The district alluded to that goal when recommending the software contract this week.

“In order to ensure the most capable staff is hired, it is imperative this system is approved so Human Resources can have the data needed to determine fair salary requirements for positions across the district,” the board documents say. “Without the system, we will be at a disadvantage when hiring the most qualified applicants.”