Layoffs impact more than 500 Shelby County educators

PHOTO: Lesley Brown
Teachers and employers network at a 2014 hiring fair in the Frayser community of Memphis. Shelby County Schools is hosting a jobs fair in June to assist displaced teachers.

Two months after approving $125 million in budget cuts for Shelby County Schools, district leaders announced Thursday the layoffs of more than 500 educators due to shrinking enrollment and recent school closures.

The district began sending letters this month to an estimated 490 teachers notifying them that their contracts will not be renewed, as well as about 30 administrators, said Sheila Redick, the district’s director of human resources.

About half already have found new positions within the district, Redick said.

Shelby County Schools – which employs 14,500 people, including about 7,000 teachers – is one of the largest employers in Memphis and Shelby County. The school system is striving to adapt to shrinking enrollment and resources without impacting its school turnaround efforts. With one of the highest concentrations of underperforming schools in Tennessee, the district has become an incubator for change and is at the forefront of the state’s education improvement efforts.

“We are a district with declining enrollment and budget issues,” Redick said during a conference call with news reporters. “Every year we’re having to make tough decisions, and we try to keep as many of those decisions away from the classroom as possible.”

Employees have braced for the layoffs since April when the district’s Board of Education approved a scaled-down $974 million budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. Roughly 80 percent of its budget goes towards personnel costs.

Student enrollment has steadily dwindled for decades in Memphis due to a declining economy and factory closings that turned bustling communities into aging and emptying neighborhoods. In the last three years, 19 schools have been closed, including three at the end of the 2014-15 school year. Siphoning off still more students, the state’s Achievement School District, tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools, has taken over 27 schools in Shelby County since 2012 and transitioned most to charter operators. With each student lost, Shelby County Schools loses per-pupil funding from the state.

Teacher layoffs have become an annual occurrence in Memphis as the district has sought to achieve balance amid all the changes.

Each year, the district works with displaced teachers to find other employment. Displaced teachers are entered into a pool of district candidates, but that does not guarantee a new position. Last year, however, 97 percent of the pool’s 800 teachers found new jobs, Redick said.

The district’s hiring practices have changed under policies implemented as part of a $90 million teacher improvement grant awarded in 2009 by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to the former Memphis City Schools. The hiring process begins earlier in the summer than in previous years and, in the 2013-14 school year, the district introduced a “mutual consent” policy requiring teachers who are laid off or displaced to interview with the principal for open positions. The previous practice — of assigning displaced teachers to schools without input from the principal and teachers — had a negative effect on performance, Redick said.

The district also now uses staffing managers to assist principals in identifying the best matches for priority schools ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We don’t limit sending our best teachers to the boutique schools,” said Redick, referring to the higher-performing schools. “We aim for equitable distribution.”

Redick said the district has hosted four hiring fairs and will host another one next week. She estimated that 350 positions remain open within the district.

Efforts to reach representatives of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, the district’s largest teacher employee organization, were not immediately successful.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede