One county, seven districts: Vying for teachers as Shelby County Schools demerges

A group of anxious teachers recently filled Bon Lin Elementary’s cafeteria to learn how to navigate the evolving educational landscape as Shelby County Schools and the six suburban municipal school districts prepare to separate this summer.

It’s possible several hundred Memphis-area teachers could soon lose their jobs as Shelby County looks to downsize amid dramatic budget cuts and all seven districts look to shed low-performing teachers during the historic upheaval.

At the Bon Lin meeting, many teachers seemed unsettled by the number of pertinent issues still up in the air including – what are the suburban districts salary and benefit offerings, will there will be retirement incentives and how many teachers will the seven districts hire this spring?

Over the next several weeks, teachers will apply to their chosen schools.  Principals will be able to select the teachers working in their schools based on in-person interviews and teacher classroom data such as overall evaluation and student growth scores on standardized tests. 
“With all of the school closures, Achievement School District takeover and the municipality split coming together at the same time, it’s kind of the perfect storm for teachers,” said Ken Foster, executive director of M-SCEA.

The main concern for many of the teachers at the informational meetings was where they would land next year.

Although no Shelby County teachers agreed to an interview with Chalkbeat, teachers at the Bon Lin Elementary  informational meeting shared some frustrations publicly during the meeting. One teacher asked if current SCS teachers would receive priority over any new teachers, specifically those coming from Teach for America.  Another teacher wanted to know if the municipal districts would be reimbursing teachers who were in master degree programs.  Neither teacher seemed to receive the answer they desired.

One thing is for sure: While the municipal districts and Shelby County Schools have not determined the salary offerings for teachers, under state law 49-5-203, tenured teachers cannot receive a reduction in pay or benefits as a result of an administration change.  The law does give districts an out’ if the budget decreases and requires the administration to make a reduction in force. 
The seven school districts – SCS and six municipalities (Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Millington, Arlington and Lakeland) as well as the Achievement School District – have already started revving up their recruiting efforts in the hopes they will be able to keep their best teachers, bring new high-performing teachers on board and get rid of the bad ones.

Teacher recruiting efforts in the state-run Achievement School Districts are in full swing. In late February several Memphis-area charter school operators traveled  to Chicago for a teacher job fair, and the district hosted a “teacher mixer” for teachers interested in joining ASD schools.

SCS Superintendent Dorsey Hopson II has said the district’s goal is to make sure every student has a high-performing teacher in the classroom.

But as the unified Shelby County Schools becomes seven independent districts, the teaching talent will be split as each system competes for the area’s best teachers.  Where those teachers land next year will determine the academic trajectory of the districts and the students they serve.

Hopson said the district estimates it will lose 3,000 teachers to the six municipal school districts starting up. The board will have to soon decide how to cut about $227 million to cut from the budget.

Hopson believes there will be enough positions to go around, but officials with M-SCEA, the local teacher’s union said there is the potential for a number of teachers left without positions.

To attract and retain quality teachers, SCS is considering using $15.6 million of bonuses for teachers with positive results in the classroom next year.

Hopson said although principals will be looking at a teacher’s classroom performance, the interview still carries weight in the decision-making process.

Hopson said teachers in search of a new position would have ample opportunity to secure employment through hiring fairs and SCS’s ongoing applicant referrals transfer and external application process.

During his press conference last week, Hopson said SCS would have about 250 fewer teaching positions next year. Hoping to soften the blow, he added SCS traditionally hires 1,100 teachers for the next school year. Some of the loss of the teachers is attributed to retirements and non-renewals.  
Foster, M-SCEA’s executive director, has reached out to The New Teacher Project to offer assistance with resume writing and interview skills for teachers impacted by the upcoming changes.

“There are teachers who haven’t been on a job interview in years and they’re concerned,” Foster said.  “Principals are looking to hire Level 5 (high-performing) teachers.  But we question whether a teacher’s TEM (Teacher Effectiveness Measure) score accurately reflects what a teacher can do in the classroom.”

Foster said the M-SCEA hasn’t received many calls from teachers about the upcoming hiring season, but he expects it will pick up soon.

Right now teachers are focused on preparing their students for the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP.  How well students perform will have an impact on teachers’ final evaluation scores.  A strong teacher is considered a 3 or higher, on a 5-point scale.  Having a strong final evaluation score at the end of the school year could give a teacher the edge in the interview and selection process.

If a teacher does not have a position by July 1, the teacher will be placed on a preferred list.

“There won’t be any forced placements and no ‘rubber rooms,'” Hopson said.

The term ‘rubber room’ refers to the practice of holding onto employees without placing them in a position while they still maintain their benefits and are paid a regular salary.

While M-SCEA is not asking the district to pay employees while they’re out of work, Foster said every tenured teacher has a right to a position and placement within the district.

“On that issue, we disagree (with Hopson),” Foster said.  “A tenured teacher has a ‘property right’ to a position.  That is offset by how many positions are available.”

Hopson said teachers at the 33 schools leaving the district’s control will receive “excess letters” – meaning the position they hold is no longer available.

School officials said the letter does not mean that a teacher is unemployed, but instead means they will have to apply for a new position.

Like Shelby County Schools, the municipal school districts want to encourage the strong teachers to transfer to the newer district.

Collierville and Millington school district leaders have surveyed teachers at the current schools they will absorb and they’ve indicated they intend to stay with them.

“We won’t know the number of teachers we will need to hire for little while,” said Russell Dyer, coordinator of human resources for Collierville Schools. “For the teachers currently in place, we’re thinking they would just become our employees.”

Dyer said that it is unlikely that the district will be able to offer bonus pay to its teachers.

Collierville Schools is promising to empower teachers with the creation of professional learning communities.

The hiring process for teachers in Collierville will be determined by select factors.

“If they’re currently hired and tenured, then they are more than likely going to be a part of our system.  That’s less likely if they are non-renewed and non-tenured,” Dyer said.  “We want to keep quality teachers we know are making an impact in the classroom.”

Dyer said with the creation of professional learning communities, teachers will have more input in making classroom decisions.

“Teachers will have a real role to play in our schools,” Dyer said.  “We’ll be backing them up in the decisions they’re making that show positive results.”

Dyer also plans to recruit teachers from area colleges.  He expects to be finished hiring by the end of June.

“We want a good stack of applicants and we have to get out there so people know who we are and what our schools are like,” he said.

The districts do not know the exact number of teachers they will need in the new school year, but officials said they are focused on providing the best for the students.

“When you have a smaller district to support, you need fewer positions,” Hopson said during his press conference last week.  “Employees are concerned that they may be affected, but the reality is our overall goal was to make sure we kept cuts as far away from the classroom as possible.   Our overarching theme is to do what’s best for students and student achievement.”