clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Memphis pauses teacher salary negotiations, citing effect of coronavirus on the budget

A classroom at Delano Optional School in Memphis in December.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Though most Memphis teachers would get a 1% salary increase in the district’s proposed budget, other changes to how they are paid are being put on hold, top officials for Shelby County Schools said Friday.

The 1% across-the-board salary increase comes from the state. Other possible pay increases based on years of experience and advanced degrees will be delayed and revisited as the coronavirus pandemic subsides, said Patrice Thomas, the district’s chief of staff.

“We cannot at this time commit to a salary schedule without having more information about where we may be going as a district,” she said during a negotiating meeting Friday with teacher associations.

Teacher association leaders objected to the pause, saying the district was using the pandemic as an “excuse” and that Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration has not explored all options to funnel more money to teacher pay, especially for veteran educators.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Keith Williams, the executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. “I don’t know how you would expect us to continue to teach, live, pay bills, and survive with a 1% raise after having worked for 35 years.”

union negotiations Dec. 13, 2019
District and teacher association leaders huddle to draft a joint statement to reporters on Friday, Dec. 13.
Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

All teachers and other licensed educators are eligible for a pay raise if the legislature allocates state money for it. In some years, the Memphis district has given raises to teachers with high evaluation scores, based on principal observations and state test scores. In a method favored by the associations, teachers can also get more pay for advanced degrees and years of experience. The district’s decision means pay increases likely will be solely dependent on teacher evaluations or the legislature.

Current salary negotiations are part of collaborative conferencing, which in 2011 replaced the requirement that unions vote on a contract. Instead, collaborative conferencing gives school boards the final say in teacher pay and working conditions.

The district and its two teacher associations have met about a dozen times over the past year to negotiate a new agreement for teachers and other licensed staff, but are far from done. They had hoped to come to an agreement in time to insert a new salary schedule into the district’s budget proposal for the 2020-21 school year. Salary schedules with yearly increases based on years of experience have been the major sticking point and before Friday, had not been discussed since December.

The district’s proposed budget reduces spending by $11.5 million, or 1% of its more than $1 billion budget.

Gov. Bill Lee in February proposed a 4% increase to Tennessee’s average teacher pay, which is lower than Shelby County Schools’ average. Before recessing in March, the state legislature approved a barebones budget that reduced the pay increase to 2%. Because Shelby County Schools employs more teachers than specified in the state’s funding formula, the increase is diluted among more people, district officials said.

Toni Williams, the district’s chief finance officer, said federal money, including one-time coronavirus relief dollars, cannot go toward teacher raises. Sales tax revenue, which the state relies on to fund schools, has plummeted as businesses falter and people spend less because they have lost their jobs. Local county commission funding is expected to remain flat, though elected officials are still debating.

A classroom at Robert R. Church Elementary, in Memphis. (August 2019)
A classroom at Robert R. Church Elementary, in Memphis.
Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat

“I don’t think that anyone has said that they don’t want to continue to support teachers and ensure that we commit to a salary schedule,” she said. “I think the conversation is just around uncertainty right now in our finances with COVID and sales taxes.”

Even so, Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said the administration should at least let teachers know how the district is calculating annual pay increases. Thomas, the district’s chief of staff, said the district is using a salary schedule for annual increases for newer teachers, but unlike in previous years, it has not been published.

“We are a $1 billion entity and we continue to make sacrifices and cuts to our teachers,” Rucker said during the meeting. “We should be able to provide a known and public salary schedule regardless.”

Gloria Williams, a longtime teacher, said there will always be a crisis or special circumstances the district will have to navigate and that the pandemic should not upend efforts to negotiate a salary schedule.

“In my tenure, I’ve seen desegregation, segregation, integration, special school districts, merger, demerger. There’s always a pandemic of some nature,” Williams said of past and recent historic changes to Memphis schools.

Angela Whitelaw, one of the district’s deputy superintendents, said the administration is not trying to circumvent the negotiating process.

“In no way are we trying to use the pandemic as an excuse. But I do want to say that it is our now,” she said.

The next negotiating meeting is tentatively scheduled from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, May 29 via videoconferencing. The meetings are open to the public and are livestreamed.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Connect with your community

Find upcoming Tennessee events