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.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.