As budget cuts loom, Memphis raises minimum teacher pay to $50,000

A close up of a student raising their hands with a teacher and a classroom in the background.
Salary increases for Memphis teachers could make classroom positions more attractive for district employees whose positions are eliminated as part of looming budget cuts in the school district. (Andrea Morales / for Chalkbeat)

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Memphis-Shelby County Schools is raising its minimum teacher salary to $50,811 under a new agreement with its two teachers unions, delivering on their salary goals despite a $150 million budget shortfall next year.

The pay bumps are an early win for Superintendent Marie Feagins, and could make teaching positions more attractive for central office staffers whose jobs are on the line because of the expected budget cuts.

But the vote on the new agreement spotlighted concerns over one board member’s potential conflicts of interest. Keith Williams, who represents District 6, is also executive director of one of Memphis’ teachers unions. He was one of the seven board members who voted to approve the agreement at Tuesday’s meeting. (Two board members were not present.)

Man wearing a beige suit and black shirt shakes a woman’s hand while sitting
Keith Williams, shown here at a 2022 hearing, voted as a school board member Tuesday to approve an agreement with unions to raise teacher salaries. The vote spotlighted concerns about conflicts of interest for Williams, who heads one of those unions, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. (Laura Faith Kebede / Chalkbeat)

Williams told Chalkbeat after the meeting that a state attorney general opinion “cleared” him to participate in such votes. He did not cite any of the specific analyses given in the opinion.

The opinion calls for recusals when a school board member who is also a union leader has conflicting interests on a matter such as employment contracts.

Teachers, administrators, and board members, meanwhile, cheered the agreement, which raises the district’s starting salary by 8% for teachers with undergraduate degrees and ensures that veteran teachers receive raises once they have hit the top of the district’s 19-step salary scale.

In practice, the pay increases are likely to be even higher in percentage terms when the agreement takes effect in July. Employees who would have received a raise by advancing to the next “step” of the scale will also benefit from the increased salaries on the new scale.

“Teachers make magic happen daily in our classrooms, and it is my intention to continue to find ways to show our appreciation for their work,” Feagins said in a statement following the meeting. She said during the meeting that the raises were an early priority.

“I think that was probably the first thing I said when we sat down in February,” she said, referring to a meeting with MSCS’ chief financial officer, Tito Langston. “‘Get me to 50.’”

School districts across Tennessee are raising salaries to keep in line with the minimums championed by Gov. Bill Lee, which aim to get teacher pay to $50,000 by 2026-27. Memphis has historically paid more than the state minimum, as it competes for staff to fill teacher vacancies. About 10% of the district’s 5,800 teaching positions are vacant.

The current contract for Memphis teachers offers union representatives a chance to bargain over certain items each January, but district officials and teachers didn’t return to the table until April, when Feagins’ term as superintendent officially began.

Leaders of both unions praised the district and school board in public comments ahead of the meeting Tuesday.

“We were able to achieve our goal in such a short time,” said Danette Stokes, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County. Addressing Feagins and her administration, she continued: “I want to express my gratitude for your leadership and your dedication to making MSCS a competitive and an attractive place for educators.”

Anntriniece Napper, president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, called the new salary schedule “magnificent.”

The new schedule is available online. District officials say it will cost an additional $28.4 million to implement the new salary schedule. Meanwhile, district leaders are working to cut $150 million in spending from next year’s budget to account for the expiration of federal COVID relief funding for education, which amounted to $776 million since 2020.

Williams told Chalkbeat that he saw no reason to recuse himself from the vote to approve the agreement with the union he heads, noting that he was not part of the committee that negotiated it.

“I am a citizen of this city and I am a retired teacher of 40 years. And I know what I’m doing and how to do it. I’m not violating any policies … because it doesn’t benefit me. It benefits my profession, that I gave my life to. So, I’m good,” he said.

The attorney general’s opinion he cited, issued in February 2023, suggests that because teacher unions and boards of education enter agreements on teacher employment, “it is foreseeable — and indeed likely” that a person in Williams’ position would face conflicts of interest and conflicting fiduciary duties. The opinion says that recusal is appropriate when obligations to the teachers union and to the school board arise.

Williams did not cite any particular analyses of the opinion to explain his participation in the vote.

A woman with a dark suit jacket stands at a microphone surrounded by other people.
Toni Williams, former interim superintendent for Memphis-Shelby County Schools, will return to the district as a financial consultant. (Tonyaa Weathersbee / Chalkbeat)

The board Tuesday also approved a consulting agreement for former interim superintendent Toni Williams, who will advise the district on budget matters for the next year.

Documents show Williams will earn $187,272 for her consulting services, an amount equivalent to her annual pay as chief financial officer before she became interim superintendent in August 2022. She will also receive funds for COBRA health benefits.

The consulting agreement was an expected benefit outlined in Williams’ interim superintendent contracts.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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