showdown

Tennessee and Memphis teachers unions are fighting — each other

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
MSCEA president Keith Williams addresses an assistant state commissioner during a June meeting about TCAP scores.

A turf war brewing between the state and Memphis teachers unions spilled over into local educators’ inboxes Wednesday.

In an unexpected move, the Tennessee Education Association told Memphis-area union members in an email that it had created a new chapter for them on Wednesday. The TEA did so after the local teachers union moved to break from the state and national unions — a decision that has left educators confused about who represents them.

“I think everyone’s got to be puzzled about what’s going on,” said Ken Foster, the former head of the local union. “I don’t know if the average teacher in the classroom knows what is going on, but I guess they would have some questions.”

The conflict stems from a series of changes — including Foster’s departure — at the local union, the Memphis and Shelby County Education Association, that appear to have provoked the state union. At issue is whether the local chapter can make its own decisions about its staff and policies, or whether it falls under the state union’s oversight.

Recently, the local union — which represents about 4,500 teachers, or about half of local educators — has taken advantage of its autonomy to make a slew of leadership changes. Most notably, Keith Williams, the five-year union president whose term ended in July and who is now running for City Council, returned as executive director in August. He replaced Foster, who had held the executive director position for 15 years.

Williams has used his new position to wage a battle against the state union, which he said had failed to serve local members. He said the local affiliate handles all grievances filed by its members, but when they choose to turn court cases over to state union officials they are ignored.

“They haven’t done one thing for members in Memphis and Shelby County,” Williams said.

So he retained Memphis attorney Michael Floyd to inform state union officials that the local chapter was seceding.

“Effective immediately my client has elected not to be affiliated with either the NEA or the TEA,” Floyd wrote to TEA President Barbara Gray on Wednesday.

That led to the letter that landed in educators’ inboxes this week, saying the state union has created the new “TEA West” to represent Memphis members.

Exactly what the decisions mean, and whether the local union’s secession can stand, is unclear. The TEA’s letter to educators suggested that union members would have to approve a split. Williams said the local chapter’s board had voted to disaffiliate, but members had not yet been asked to vote on the move.

Gray said understanding how the decision to disaffiliate was made would matter going forward. “The governance document of MSCEA requires certain procedures to be followed, and we don’t know if any of these procedures were followed or not,” Gray said. “But we do know that we’ll be working with the membership of MSCEA to make sure that their voices are heard in attempts to rectify the situation.”

For now, the state union is telling local educators that their membership to TEA and the national affiliate still stand, and they are still entitled to legal representation and other services. Its email to local educators signaled that the dustup was likely to be resolved, although there are “serious questions that need to addressed.”

Williams suggested that he was open to resolution but willing to engage in a prolonged battle against the state union if it does not continue to let the local choose its own staff.

“If there cannot be a resolution, it looks like this may be a fight,” Williams said. “They have said we do not have right to retain the local option, and we believe that we do.”

You can view the letter and email here:

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