Memphis superintendent creates teacher advisory council amid stalled salary negotiations

A teacher representative from every school in the Memphis district can provide input into district decisions under a new teacher advisory council that Superintendent Joris Ray announced Thursday.

Ray said in September as he announced a 3% raise for most teachers that he “does not need a proxy to speak directly to teachers,” and has been working to create a way for more teachers to have input in district decisions.

“This council in no way substitutes membership in your local teacher associations, but will enable teachers to communicate directly with me or my direct reports regarding SCS educational decisions,” Ray said in a video to teachers posted Thursday.

But teacher association leaders say the effort is duplicative and could easily cause “in-house fighting” just as negotiations over salaries come to a head.

Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association of Shelby County, said members of a similar, but much smaller, teacher council created under the district’s former superintendent were not consulted about forming the new group. The previous group consisted of educators in and outside the district’s two teacher associations, which are responsible for negotiating an agreement with the district addressing salary and working conditions.

Shelby County Schools teachers have clamored for more input into district decisions, but do not have many opportunities to offer it outside of official negotiations with the district and association representatives.

“Let’s be clear, the teacher advisory council will be very beneficial for the district. However… you’re undoing everything to start over,” Rucker said. “If it’s for the right reasons, I would think you reach out to the members of the council so it would be part of the district’s culture no matter who is in that position.”

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said he will advise his members to “proceed with caution,” because guidelines for selecting teachers haven’t been announced by the district.

“It’s not about being open and receptive to teacher concerns. It’s already out there,” Williams said. “You’re looking for another venue to create discord. It’s very unsettling to me.”

Classroom at White Station Elementary School. PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Between the two groups, they represent about 4,500 teachers, counselors, social workers, and other educational staff. Shelby County Schools employs about 6,600 teachers. The associations also have representatives in each of Shelby County Schools’ 150 direct-run schools. The district’s 57 charter schools are not included in the council and make their own personnel decisions.

In response to criticisms that the council could circumvent the district’s work with teacher associations, Ray said with only one venue to communicate teacher concerns, it can become like a child’s game of telephone where one message whispered into the next person’s ear can completely change by the time it gets to the end of the line.

“It’s important for me to give facts. When we have to go through two or three people to get to teachers, sometimes that message gets distorted,” said Ray, who is also a member of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. “This way teachers can speak directly to me.”

The associations and Shelby County Schools leaders have been negotiating for nearly a year and recently proposed two different salary schedules, which are based on years of experience and advanced degrees. There have been no meetings since the district’s proposal was presented last month.

A meeting was scheduled for Friday, but district leaders canceled it to give more time for officials to analyze the proposals and answer questions from association leaders. Ray said on Thursday evening he still plans to include a salary schedule that the district and associations agree on in the spring’s budget proposal.

Shelby County Schools salary schedule proposal (from December)
Teacher associations’ salary schedule proposal (from October)

Tennessee law that weakened union power nearly a decade ago tossed the requirement that districts and organizations representing employees have to reach an agreement. If there’s an impasse, the school board gets the final word.

Meetings for the new teacher advisory council are expected to start in February and meet monthly for an hour. School staff can nominate a representative and an alternate for a one-year term, which can be renewed for two additional years. A district spokeswoman said a committee from the human resources department will select the teacher representatives.

In a district statement announcing the initiative, Jaleta Miller, a teacher at White Station Middle School said the council was an “answered prayer for teachers.”

“This council will give us an opportunity to advocate for our schools, and for the students we serve,” she said in the statement. “It’s a direct line of communication for teachers and Superintendent Ray. Mostly, it allows us to be heard.”

Ray said in the statement he is looking for “insights, suggestions, and perspectives on critical educational issues.”

“Nothing moves me more than authentic teacher voice,” he said.

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