Memphis teacher salary proposal would boost starting pay and compensate advanced degrees

The starting salary for new Shelby County Schools teachers would increase to match or exceed neighboring competitors, and teachers would be annually compensated for master’s degrees under a district counterproposal presented to teacher groups on Friday.

The proposal would add $2,000 to the compensation of new district teachers, raising the starting salary to $45,000. Teachers with master’s degrees could make a salary as high as $74,000, and teachers with doctorates almost $84,000.

The negotiators are struggling to resolve the issue of who should get priority in pay increases: new teachers the district desperately need for hard-to-fill openings, or veteran teachers whose experience bring value to a struggling district.

The district proposal would bring back annual step increases, something the teachers associations have asked for. But it would take a teacher seven years longer to reach the maximum pay under the district’s plan of 25 steps. A shorter 18-step timeline under the associations’ proposals would not be “financially sustainable,” said Patrice Williamson-Thomas, the district’s chief of staff.

“If we decrease the [number of] steps, then ultimately any of those teachers that are capped out will not be able to actually have that increase in their pay,” she said Friday.

Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said it is more important to give quicker pay increases for veteran teachers so they don’t leave the district.

“We have to be competitive even for our veteran teachers, not just for our new teachers,” she said. “Because they are the teachers that have been here and have been committed to the work and are still here.”

The current starting salary of $43,000 is lower than five of the six suburban districts in Shelby County and the state-run Achievement School District, according to data collected by the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group. The district’s proposed starting salary falls within the associations’ proposals, which ranged from $43,000 to nearly $50,000.

In October, the teachers associations asked for higher salaries for advanced degrees, which are mostly in line with the district’s proposal. Currently, only teachers with high evaluation scores are eligible for annual bonuses for their advanced degrees, said Chantay Branch, the district’s director of employee relations. Teachers hired before 2015 were already compensated for advanced degrees in their base salaries under a previous model, she said.

The proposed salary structure would cost the district $15 million in the first year. By the 2023-24 school year, the plan would cost the district about $10 million more annually than they pay for teacher compensation now, according to district documents.

Tikeila Rucker, left, and Superintendent Joris Ray after the school board meeting Ray was appointed to the district’s top position. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

The district proposal was the first response to a proposal from teachers in October. Negotiations began in February between Superintendent Joris Ray’s administration and the city’s two teacher associations, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association and the United Education Association of Shelby County. Scroll to the bottom of this story to see the district’s proposed salary schedule.

In a statement after the meeting, Ray offered “an open line of communication” between him and educators.

“I value each of you and believe in paying teachers well,” he said. “I want to hear your insights, suggestions, and we’ll soon be sharing more information about a direct platform that allows teachers to express perspectives on critical educational issues.”

Teacher groups across the nation have protested to secure higher pay and better working conditions, leading to strikes in places such as Denver, Chicago, West Virginia, and Oklahoma. But Tennessee is not likely to follow suit because lawmakers stripped teacher unions of most of their power in 2011 and replaced collective bargaining with “collaborative conferencing” that limits negotiation topics and gives the school board the final say in any agreement.

Research shows that teachers make the most difference in a student’s academic success, but districts across the nation struggle to recruit and keep effective educators. Low salaries are often cited in addition to a lack of professional support and low morale, association members said. The district started the year with more than 100 classroom vacancies and hired remote teachers to instruct students online to fill some vacancies.

Related: Shelby County Schools teacher salary average dipped to 11th in the state.

The proposed step schedule for pay increases would be in addition to annual bonuses for teachers who earn high scores from the state, based partially on student test results. Exact award amounts have not been decided and cannot be discussed in negotiations per state law.

Classroom at Hamilton K-8 in Memphis. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

About 90% of teachers already earn high enough evaluation scores on the state’s 5-point scale to qualify for annual bonuses, Williamson-Thomas said.

But bonuses do not affect base salary, which is connected to retirement pensions, so bonuses would not increase future benefits. Teacher association representatives focused on the impact of the proposed salary schedule on veteran teachers because they are more likely to leave the classroom, the district, or the profession altogether because of low pay, they said.

“Our goal is not to have people go outside the classroom trying to get money, ” said Charlotte Fields, middle school teacher and representative with Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. “We need the good teachers to stay.”

Related: Here’s who is at the table negotiating for teacher associations and the district.

Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of human resources, said it has to address pay for new teachers, too. She said many of the new teachers she talks to decline offers from Shelby County Schools because the state-run district can offer $2,000 more. Cheronda Thompson, with United Education Association of Shelby County, suggested a signing bonus as a compromise, which would be less expensive and redirect money to more experienced teachers.

Deputy superintendent Angela Whitelaw said the district is backfilling resources that were once paid for by a $90 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a Chalkbeat funder), and support from other organizations prompted by the grant that ran out in 2017. That leaves fewer dollars for additional investments. Whitelaw also noted that earlier this year, the local county commission, in an unusual move, decided not to meet the district’s entire funding request.

“At that time, money was just coming in,” Whitelaw said. “Now we’re struggling to get money just for some initiatives.”

In the district’s proposal, steps equal years of experience, and salaries for new teachers would align with the step schedule. But existing teachers would enter the step schedule based on their current salary. When their years of experience catch up to the numbered step in the schedule, their salary would increase. Association members asked the district to analyze how long and how many teachers would have to wait to receive a pay raise.

The only exception would be newly hired teachers with more than 10 years of experience. They would enter the district’s schedule at step 10, and their salary would be based on their degree.

The groups are scheduled to meet again at 9 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 24. These meetings are open to the public by state law. In previous meetings, leaders said they want to finalize negotiations before the district presents its budget this spring for the 2020-21 school year.

Below is the district’s proposed salary schedule.

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