For the first time in four years, Shelby County Schools and teacher leaders are headed to the bargaining table to hash out a new agreement.

Teacher representatives and district leaders will first meet separately Friday to set priorities and strategize. A meeting with all negotiators present is expected after spring break in mid-March.

The negotiations come as the district is being led by interim superintendent Joris Ray, a career Memphis educator, who has a strong base of teachers and principals. Although Ray will be heavily involved in guiding the district during contract talks, he will not be in the negotiating room.

Teachers have been operating under an expired agreement for nearly a year. The new contract will affect more than 7,000 Shelby County Schools teachers and other licensed educators, but not principals and assistant principals. This is the first time teachers in Memphis have been represented by two groups, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association and United Education Association.

“The number one priority is a return to a salary schedule so they can have guaranteed increases,” said Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association. His group gathered survey responses from about 2,000 members.

Teacher organization leaders also hope to talk about work hours, health benefits, and teaching district curriculums. Among the top concerns for United Education Association’s 1,500 members are pay rates for various positions, how Shelby County Schools handles intradistrict transfers, and out-of-pocket health expenses.

Shelby County Schools did not provide a statement for this story.

The scales are tipped in favor of district leaders from the outset because of a 2011 state law that eliminated the strongest union tool — collective bargaining — and significantly narrowed the scope of negotiations.

Teacher organization agreements cannot address teacher evaluations, basing personnel decisions on tenure or seniority, or bonuses and raises based on teacher performance.

That last category is part of what propelled Denver teachers to a strike for three days earlier this month, after the teacher union could not reach an agreement with Denver Public Schools. Teacher strikes are illegal in Tennessee and if there’s an impasse during negotiations, the school board gets the final word.

That means the parties don’t actually have to come to an agreement, said Linda Wesson, the assistant director of Tennessee’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability. Her office analyzed the 2011 law on teacher negotiations, now known as collaborative conferencing.

“With collaborative conferencing if you don’t have an agreement, management just says here’s what you’re going to do,” she said.

Still, a strike isn’t completely out of the question, according to both teacher group leaders.

“Striking is an act of civil disobedience,” Williams said of the outlawed practice. “But you have to make sure people want to strike.”

“If we can collaborate to get what we need, we won’t get to a point where we have to strike,” said Tikeila Rucker, the president of United Education Association.

Below is a list of people who will be at the bargaining table:

Shelby County Schools

  • Sharonda Beard, principal at Balmoral Ridgeway Elementary
  • Chantay Branch, director of labor relations
  • Terrance Brittenum, principal at A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Antonio Burt, chief academic officer
  • Lin Johnson, deputy superintendent of finance and operations
  • Kelvin Meeks, principal at Mitchell High
  • Trinette Small, chief of human resources
  • Kenneth Walker, associate general counsel
  • Rita White, principal at Barret’s Chapel K-8
  • Angela Whitelaw, deputy superintendent of schools and academic support
  • Michael Woods, labor relations advisor

Memphis-Shelby County Education Association

  • Charlotte Fields, middle school teacher
  • Jesse Jeff, MSCEA staff
  • April Jeffries, elementary teacher
  • Phyllis Kyle, MSCEA staff
  • Rholedia Morgan, high school teacher
  • Keith Williams, executive director of MSCEA
  • Gloria Williams, middle school teacher

United Education Association of Shelby County

  • Donna Going, student mental health
  • Lisa Jorgensen, elementary school teacher
  • Larita Mitchell, elementary teacher
  • Tikeila Rucker, president of United Education Association
  • Chris Stallings, middle school teacher