Memphis teacher groups seek to increase maximum salary up to 18%

Shelby County Schools teachers would be able to earn up to $86,000 annually under the highest of three proposals from the district’s two teacher associations.

That would be 18% more than the current maximum salary of $73,000.

The associations want up to a 16% boost to the district’s $43,000 minimum salary for new teachers. But Cheronda Thompson, who represented United Education Association of Shelby County, said increasing the maximum is more important.

“It’s not about how we start, it’s about how we finish,” she said during negotiations Friday afternoon. “We want to retain people. They already start good.”

The Memphis district has been in negotiations with the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association and the United Education Association of Shelby County since February, but have only recently delved into salary talks. They are working toward a new agreement with classroom teachers and licensed professionals such as counselors and social workers on issues such as pay and working conditions.

Research shows that teachers make the most difference in a student’s academic success, but districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain effective educators. An often cited reason is salary, especially in states like Tennessee where the average teacher salary trails both regional and national numbers.

Related: Memphis teacher salary average dipped to 11th in the state. Negotiations to change that haven’t progressed.

The highest proposal would cost the district about $19 million in the first year. Shelby County Schools has not yet countered the proposals, but provided cost estimates on each of the associations’ three proposals on Friday:

  • $19 million for a starting salary of $49,985 and maximum of $86,007
  • $13 million for a starting salary of $47,600 and maximum of $81,917
  • $12 million for a starting salary of $43,000 and maximum of $81,917

Angela Whitelaw, a district deputy superintendent, said the district is committed to raising teacher salaries, but wants to hammer out a compromise.

Currently teachers making the top salary are only eligible for bonuses if the district offers salary increases to other teachers. Because salary is connected to retirement pensions, the policy caps future benefits too.

Related: As union negotiations continue, Memphis teachers will receive a 3% raise, and some will also get merit pay

Salaries are a particularly sore topic with the associations because the district’s average teacher salary is one of only two districts in the state that have dipped since 2014, according to a state comptroller’s report. The district attributed the drop to higher paid teachers retiring and an influx of cheaper, less experienced educators.

Nearly two-thirds of new teacher hires last school year had less than three years of experience, according to district data presented during Friday’s negotiations. At the same time, about a quarter of teachers who left the district the year before had between eight and 15 years of experience with an average salary of about $53,000.

The groups are scheduled to meet again from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1. These negotiation meetings are open to the public by state law.