Shelby County Schools teachers have decided it’s time to go back to the bargaining table with district officials to hammer out a new agreement.
Sixty percent of the district’s 7,000 educators, or more than 4,300, voted to allow the two teacher groups that represent them to start negotiating with district officials about pay, insurance, and working conditions. That’s well above the 51 percent that was legally required to begin talks.
It will be the first time the groups have negotiated with the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year’s organizing efforts didn’t get enough votes to begin negotiations, known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee.
The last agreement, or memorandum of understanding, expired in March. The memorandums are legally binding and can cover such things as salaries, grievance procedures, insurance, and working conditions. But under state law, the agreements can’t address evaluations or personnel decisions such as layoffs or tenure.
Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said she hopes talks with the district start by February. She says that it could take up to a year to reach an agreement, although she’s hopeful that it will be sooner.
“We’re creating a survey now to share with the teachers throughout the district so we’ll know what things teachers want to see,” Rucker said. They’ll ask teachers for input on items that can be negotiated, including wages, insurance, grievance procedures, and working conditions.
From earlier teacher feedback, Rucker said educators are concerned about rising insurance costs, and classroom conditions such as class size. They also want raises based on years of service restored, as well as extra pay for advanced degrees, she said.
Dorsey Hopson, Shelby County Schools superintendent, has tried for several years to implement a merit pay system for teachers based on evaluations that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But because of numerous testing problems, Hopson hasn’t yet done that. Instead, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.
Keith Williams, executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the salary increases that teachers have received in recent years amounted to bonuses and so-called cost-of-living increases that haven’t kept pace with the cost of living.
“We need to have continuity of pay and a way to predict our earnings,” he said in advocating for the return of step pay increases.
Additionally, he said teachers want to restore time for daily planning periods. And they want a “quality curriculum” that they’re trained to teach and is ready to go on the first day of school.
Teachers have complained that the English curriculum, Expeditionary Learning, doesn’t allow them to tailor content for their students. The new math curriculum, Eureka Math, had a bumpy rollout. Some materials arrived late, teacher training was behind schedule, and for some, the program didn’t start until 12 weeks into the school year.
Williams believes negotiations may start in January and is hopeful that a new three-year contract will be in place by April. Meanwhile, he plans regular updates with teachers to allow them to have input.
Union leaders are waiting for the official certified vote numbers that are expected to be released Tuesday. Williams said that almost 60 percent of the teachers supported his group. That means they’ll have more seats at the negotiating table.
But once negotiations begin, Rucker said, “the two associations will work as one team to advocate and collaborate on behalf of teachers.”