Dougco teachers join class action lawsuit

The latest squabble to erupt in Douglas County schools is over teacher sick days and whether teachers who have been laid off due to budget cuts are getting a shot at other district teaching jobs.

Brenda Smith, a former classroom teacher who now leads the Douglas County Federation of Teachers, at a negotiation session in June. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

The Douglas County Federation of Teachers (DCFT) and the district’s classified employees filed a lawsuit Feb. 15 in Douglas County District Court claiming that the school district illegally refused to consider teachers for job openings after their positions had been eliminated. A second complaint over the district’s decision in July to scrap a bank of 10,000 teacher sick days was lumped with it, resulting in one lawsuit.

Dougco school board President John Carson called the lawsuit “frivolous.”

“This is a union that has tried to flood the community with misinformation and political spin in an effort to tear down the excellent reputation of our schools and our teachers,” Carson said in a statement. “We’ll deal with this frivolous lawsuit directly. But we will not allow it to distract us from what public schools are actually about-educating kids for the 21st century.”

Carson accused the union of “trying to gain rights under a collective bargaining agreement that expired last summer due to its unwillingness to work collaboratively with the school district.”

DCFT President Brenda Smith disputed the district’s comment about teachers not wanting to work collaboratively during contract talks.

“That is absolutely false,” Smith said. “The union – time and time again – tried to come to a resolution on the contract.”

Smith accused the district of violating Senate Bill 10-191, the state teacher effectiveness law, by not putting teachers who have been laid off due to downsizing in a priority hiring pool. Tenured teachers in that situation go through two hiring cycles before they are let go if they are not offered another district teaching job.

During last year’s hiring cycle, 10 veteran teachers who were laid off never even got interviews or return phone calls, Smith said. The district is in the second hiring cycle now. Six teachers attached their names to the class action lawsuit, she said.

“They basically broke state law,” Smith said. “Under state law, you have to have a priority hiring pool when you downsize….That means teachers displaced inside the system have priority for interviews when jobs come open.”

However, the system also requires “mutual consent,” meaning both the teacher and the school principal must agree on the placement.

“These are teachers who were downsized who didn’t have any sort of evaluative issues,” Smith said, noting that the 10 non-probationary teachers are now substitute teaching regularly. “If they don’t get a job, then they’re out of a position starting July 1.”

But the district contends it is following policy.

“We followed the letter of the law and the process previously agreed to by DCFT,” district spokeswoman Cinamon Watson said. “All displaced teachers were eligible to apply for any district opening and they were all interviewed or screened for the position by the hiring manager. Those displaced teachers that were not hired for an open position were reassigned as substitutes at no cut to their salary or benefits.”

Smith said the sick day issue is especially disturbing. Previously, teachers donated one sick day per year to a sick day bank. Those days could be shared with members facing severe illness. The bank was worth more than $850,000 when the district switched to a short-term disability system arguing it was a more financially prudent approach. The suit calls for the district to reimburse teachers for those sick days.

“We’d had that for as long as we had a contract, for 40-plus years,” Smith said. “(Short-term disability) does not cover the salary of a teacher while they’re off. These do belong to teachers. (The district) did take them away without any sort of conversations.”

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede