When Keith Williams became president of the Memphis teachers union in 2010, the Tennessee legislature had just stripped away most of its bargaining rights, local government leaders were on the brink of merging the city and county school systems, and Memphis City Schools had just received a $90 million grant that would change how it hires, evaluates and fires teachers.
“The bombs just kept exploding,” said Yvonne Acey, a longtime teacher and former president of the Memphis Education Association. “They had to be dealt with.”
Williams has tried to do just that for the last five years — the longest time ever served by a Memphis teachers union president. As a fiery voice in behalf of the merged district’s 7,000 teachers, he has publicly lambasted school leaders, mobilized hundreds of teachers at school board meetings and, when he didn’t get his way, sued the district a record seven times.
“The superintendent said to sue us, so we did,” Williams explained matter-of-factly.
This week, Williams, 63, served his last day as president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, also known as MSCEA. He will continue to work at its office as a consultant and recently filed to run for a seat on Memphis City Council.
Most notably, he leaves behind a recently approved three-year Memorandum Of Understanding between teachers and Shelby County Schools that spells out a grievance policy, defines working hours for teachers, and provides an extra day off to teachers with more than 18 years of experience.
He also leaves behind a much smaller organization than the one he took the helm of in 2010. After six suburban municipalities split from the merged district and formed their own school systems in 2014, plus with significant layoffs for three straight years by Shelby County Schools, the MSCEA now has about 4,500 members, a 35 percent drop under Williams’ watch and representing just half of the district’s employees.
“They keep firing our members and the new ones don’t join,” said Williams, a former English and history teacher.
A teacher advocacy organization, MSCEA charges $667 a year for membership and provides legal representation and professional training, among other things.
Throughout most of his tenure as president, Williams has been on the defensive. The organization lost key battles such as the district’s refusal to give bonuses to teachers with graduate degrees, laying off teachers in the order in which they were hired, and giving principals rather than central office staff the authority to pick which teachers they hire.
He acknowledges that, when district leaders consider policies impacting teachers, MSCEA has slowly been pushed out of the decision-making room.
Now stepping aside, Williams speaks openly about his discouragement over the state of the teaching profession. “It’s so unpredictable … (and) it won’t be a profession for very much longer,” he said. “Teachers won’t have longevity and they’ll be subject to whatever the market bears. That’s not what children need. But that’s where we are. It’s a market-driven profession.”
His legal and political battles aren’t done, however.
The school board recently agreed to explore changing the benefits it affords its 8,000 retirees to pay down a $1.5 billion liability debt for retiree health and life insurance benefits. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has pledged eventually to change teacher pay scales based on performance rather than years of experience, a move that Williams successfully held off this year by mobilizing hundreds of teachers at school board meetings. Just last month, the district laid off 500 teachers due to budget cuts, a process that Williams says mostly ignored MSCEA leaders. A series of lawsuits filed by the organization is pending in court over how the district lays off teachers.
Even with all of the changes and challenges, local teacher advocates laud Williams for his passion and tenacity.
“He was the right person in the right place at the right time for us,” said Ken Foster, executive director of MSCEA.
A graduate of Memphis Melrose High School, Williams was influenced by teachers at a young age and went into education because he wanted to inspire future generations. He graduated from Knoxville College and taught in Knoxville schools before moving back to Memphis, where he taught in several high schools, including Northside, Central, Overton and Kirby. In 1978, he gained notoriety as a teachers advocate by helping lead a strike after the union failed to negotiate a contract with the city’s administration.
In 2010, Williams was appointed to serve as the association’s president and the organization voted for him to continue in the role for two terms. Without the right to bargain, the organization frequently went into arbitration with administrators over proposed changes to teacher evaluations and working conditions, a tedious and often frustrating process.
“We went from collective bargaining to begging,” Williams said. “We just don’t have the volume we once had.”
Trying to hold the line, Williams rallied hundreds of teachers decked out in bright red to show up to board meetings and contact board members regarding policy proposals related to pay, benefits and working conditions. He led news conferences in which teachers tearfully described being laid off without warning from the district.
“This organization has always been there for me,” said Robert Newman, a Memphis high school teacher who worked with MSCEA to sue the district last year after being laid off after 37 years with the district. “They’ve been my right hand.”
Williams, who uses his hands expressively and laces his speech with quips, conspiracy theories and personal attacks, became a go-to interview for local newspaper and television reporters whenever teachers were in the news.
Today, he complains that state and local officials have dismantled the rights of teachers and replaced them with inexperienced and alternatively certified teachers — members he hasn’t necessarily welcomed into the organization, according to some teachers. He worries that the school merger in 2013 set up the district for failure and theorizes that private organizations, using charter schools, want to take over the city’s education landscape.
“Public schools are the last big part of public money, and the private industry is going after it,” Williams said, referring to charter and virtual schools. “They have destabilized this profession to the point where it’s an economic enterprise. I think when parents realize that, especially parents of children of color, they would’ve lost years of quality education.”
Ironically, his son Chad now teaches at Freedom Prep, a Memphis charter school. “It’s one of the good ones,” Williams said.
He says the only way teachers will regain their rights is by electing board members who are sympathetic toward their issues or who run for office themselves.
Beginning July 1, Williams was succeeded as MSCEA president by Patricia Scarborough, a teacher at Colonial Middle School.