Future of Teaching

Displaced by job cuts and school closings, Shelby County teachers share stories of frustration

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County Schools teacher Shanda Hunt wipes her tears as she talks about how hard it has been to be unemployed and in search of a teaching job. She was laid off last year, in May 2014.

After staff cuts last year that left hundreds of educators scrambling to find new jobs, one former Shelby County Schools teacher is close to losing her home. Another has depleted her savings after a summer of job searching.

“I honestly do not know what I’m going to do,” said Betty Smith. She worked at Cypress Middle, which was one of the 10 schools closed by the district at the end of the 2013-14 academic year. Smith has worked in education for 28 years in Tennessee and three years in Mississippi. She’s certified to teach math and music, and as a guidance counselor.

“I think I’ve applied to more than 100 positions,” said Smith, who was assigned to Cypress after her previous school, White’s Chapel Elementary, closed last year. She has not received a call back from any.

The Memphis-Shelby County Education Association filed a lawsuit on August 4 on behalf of tenured teachers such as Smith, whose positions have been cut and who have not found new jobs in the district. The association contends that those teachers should be hired for teaching jobs before new or non-tenured candidates. This is the second lawsuit the association has filed on behalf of teachers from schools that have closed.

Displaced teacher Paul Banks has had trouble finding a new position.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Displaced teacher Paul Banks has had trouble finding a new position.

In a change from previous years, Shelby County Schools is not assigning teachers to particular schools or jobs. Instead, it has adopted a hiring policy known as mutual consent, which means that teachers are selected by principals by jobs they apply for rather than placed by the district in a given school.

All of the displaced teachers are on a list the district is referring to as its “reemployment list,” which consisted of those who were displaced by school closings or staff cuts. District principals were encouraged to consider them as candidates.

The district’s site still lists dozens of teaching jobs as open. Hundreds whose jobs were initially cut have found new positions in the district. Others may have found employment in charter schools, in one of the state-run Achievement School District’s schools, or in one of the six new suburban school systems in the county.

Displaced teacher David Johnson is close to retirement, but still wants to work in the classroom
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
Displaced teacher David Johnson is close to retirement, but still wants to work in the classroom

But some are still searching for jobs in Shelby County Schools. Today, the association invited several teachers who had not yet found positions to share their experiences with local media. Keith Williams, the association’s president, said litigation is one recourse for the teachers, but he also encouraged them to make their stories and frustrations public.

“I can’t live off $275 a week with unemployment, if I get it,” said Shanda Hunt, who worked at Lanier Middle, which closed in May. “My best friend filled up my tank with gas and gave me $20. It’s odd being at home. I’m bored and I’m not able to do all the things I need to do for my son. I’ve been a good teacher and I’m trying to stay optimistic.”

Hunt worries the pool of teachers looking for jobs will grow once the district receives its first school-by-school enrollment figures.

“What happens then? Some more teachers might lose their positions. And then there are even more teachers out there looking at the same positions,” Hunt said.

Shelby County Schools did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the new lawsuit on Friday afternoon.

Earlier this summer, the district declined to comment on the previous lawsuit involving teachers from closed schools.


Below: Teacher Betty Smith describes her search for a new job in Shelby County Schools:

 

 

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negotiations

Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.



story slam

The state of teacher pay in Indiana: Hear true stories told by local educators

It’s time to hear directly from educators about the state of teacher pay in Indiana.

Join us for another Teacher Story Slam, co-hosted by the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Chalkbeat Indiana, and Teachers Lounge Indy. Teacher salaries are the hot topic in education these days, in Indiana and across the country. Hear from Indianapolis-area teachers who will tell true stories about how they live on a teacher’s salary.

Over the past two years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from the teachers, students, and leaders of Indianapolis through our occasional series, What’s Your Education Story? Some of our favorites were told live during teacher story slams hosted by Teachers Lounge Indy.

Those stories include one teacher’s brutally honest reflection on the first year of teaching and another teacher’s uphill battle to win the trust of her most skeptical student.

Event details

The event will be held from 6-8 p.m. on Friday, March 15, at Clowes Court at the Eiteljorg, 500 W Washington St. in Indianapolis. It is free and open to the public — please RSVP.

More in What's Your Education Story?