Memphis cuts its proposed budget by reducing staff, but teachers would see a 1% pay increase

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

Memphis teachers and other licensed educators are slated to receive a 1% pay raise while Shelby County Schools spending overall is expected to be cut by $11.5 million from last year in a budget proposal presented to school board members Thursday. 

The budget cuts, which equal about 1% of the total $1.04 billion budget, likely will mean fewer classroom teachers and administrative support, but the district did not disclose to Chalkbeat how many people would lose their jobs. A district spokeswoman said “many” of the positions are vacant. The budget also forgoes teacher hires for the district’s gifted education program, known as CLUE, which more than doubled its enrollment this year. 

Still, the proposed budget includes additional dollars to expand some district initiatives and purchase textbooks.

The proposal also is likely to change as Superintendent Joris Ray’s team completes a plan on spending $49 million in federal coronavirus relief money that can go toward purchasing laptops and tablets for students to learn online or toward other emergency aid while school buildings are closed. 

Superintendent Joris Ray speaks to new members of the district’s teacher advisory council on Feb. 26. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Three weeks ago, Ray released three versions of a long-term plan to purchase electronic devices for the district’s 95,000 students and provide internet access, but the board has not studied it yet. Districts in Knoxville and Chattanooga have already announced plans to purchase devices for students using emergency federal funds.

Jerica Phillips, the district’s spokeswoman, said the proposed budget is “totally separate” from the district’s plan to transition students back to school buildings in the fall because that will mostly be one-time costs the district will advocate for in the coming months. 

“We have to brace for the [pandemic’s] economic impact and we also have to account for the anticipated loss of revenue,” she said. 

The proposal for the 2020-21 school year is similar to what the district’s chief finance officer, Toni Williams, shared with the board in late March, but some key details are still unclear. 

It includes a $25 million cut to the central office, including about 140 positions and $10 million in contracts. Altogether, the proposal cuts 220 full-time positions and adds 199 part-time positions, or 21 fewer positions overall. 

School spending nationwide is in limbo as the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic threatens to reduce tax revenue and divert it to emergency health costs. The Shelby County commission, the local funding body for schools, this week rejected Mayor Lee Harris’ proposal to increase a county vehicle tax, which could put education funding in jeopardy. State legislators slashed most new education programs and reduced proposed teacher raises.

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Yet, some of the money saved in the budget would be rerouted to teacher pay raises, textbooks, and expanding a district program to reduce out-of-school suspensions.

Tutonial “Toni” Williams, chief of finance (Shelby County Schools)

The district’s proposal sets aside $6 million for the 1% salary increase for teachers and licensed staff such as school counselors and psychologists. The district and its teacher associations had planned to include additional changes to how and when teachers get pay raises in the budget, but negotiations are ongoing. The next meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Friday via videoconferencing.

“Definitely, if our governor is giving a raise, we’re passing that raise along no matter what,” said Williams, the district’s chief finance officer. 

Keith Williams, the executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said there are still a lot of unanswered questions as the district completes its budget request.

“Teachers would love to rally the county commission for a budget increase,” Williams wrote in a public comment submitted for the budget hearing. “However, they must also have assurance that their salaries are being addressed.” 

The district also plans a $3.8 million expansion of its “reset room” initiative to more schools. This program provides space for students to debrief with an adult and calm down instead of suspending students when they misbehave. In the schools that started reset rooms this school year, suspension rates overall decreased from 19% to 15% compared with the same time period last year.

And even though the district added more than 600 students to its gifted education program this school year, Ray does not expect to hire more teachers for the program, known as CLUE. The additional $100,000 in the program’s budget is expected to go toward combining smaller CLUE classes from around the district. 

The school board is expected to vote on the budget at a special meeting Monday. The budget would then go to county commissioners for approval. 

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