Not every teacher who was voted to represent their school will keep their spot on Shelby County Schools’ new teacher advisory council formed to provide input to the district.

That’s because despite Superintendent Joris Ray wanting to exclude union leadership to “give other people an opportunity to lead too,” at least 10 schools voted for a union leader to represent them anyway.

“Even though the criteria was very clear that this was for new teachers to have an opportunity, there were a few people that slipped through the cracks,” said Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of human resources.

Under the district’s criteria for council members “teachers who are not currently serving in an association leadership role are eligible” to “allow for an additional line of communication from teachers with the Superintendent.”

Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of human resources
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Though Ray insisted the council would not replace association membership or its voice, he told a crowd of teachers attending their first council meeting at the Hilton Memphis last Wednesday that some association leaders have a “personal agenda” in their advocacy.

“Often what people do under the auspices of advocating for teachers, I hear, ‘I’m a teacher advocate!’ But when I meet with them usually when they throw out a couple of things, then it comes back to their personal agendas and usually they’re asking for a job,” he said. “That’s the truth.”

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said that is not true. “We’re not looking for fame or fortune. All we’re asking is that you do right by teachers.”

Ray also took a jab at association members who showed up at a January board meeting with plastic bats to express their opposition to how the district handles professional development courses with the hashtag #SCSstrikesout.

“You hollering and screaming and coming down with bats, that does not move me. That does not move the board,” he said at the council meeting. “Because we are a professional organization and we have to always maintain a level of professionalism even when we disagree.”

The episode is the latest in an increasingly strained relationship between Ray and the district’s two teacher associations.

Members of the new Shelby County Schools teacher advisory committee met for the first time Feb. 26 to discuss professional development, teacher pay, and district culture.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Williams said some leaders from his organization were initially told to leave the council meeting, but eventually were allowed to stay with the acknowledgement that last week’s meeting would be their last. He noted that the association’s lawyer is discussing if the council is legal with the district’s legal team since state law outlines how teachers negotiate with their school systems.

“I don’t understand how you could exclude members of a professional organization,” Williams said. Any results from the advisory council “wouldn’t be for just them. It would be for everybody.”

Martin said the associations already have representatives at each school and shouldn’t serve in more than one leadership role to advocate on behalf of about 6,500 teachers in the district.

“They want to monopolize the voice in the building and you can’t have one person as the only person,” Martin told Chalkbeat. “There are many teachers in the building.”

Robert R. Church Elementary teachers voted for Danette Stokes, the secretary of the United Education Association of Shelby County, but she declined. Stokes, who is also running for president of the association, said she understands the district’s line of thinking.

“I don’t have a problem with it personally because I try to get teachers engaged who are not already engaged,” said Stokes, who sent representatives to the inaugural advisory council meeting recently to pass out campaign literature. “The more the merrier.”

Superintendent Joris Ray speaks to new members of the district’s teacher advisory council on Feb. 26.
PHOTO CREDIT: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Ray announced the creation of a new teacher advisory council in January that includes a representative from each of the district’s nearly 150 schools plus some specialty programs, replacing a much smaller council under former superintendent Dorsey Hopson.

Teachers nominated themselves or a colleague before schools voted for their representatives last month. If a school did not have any nominations, principals chose a representative, a district spokeswoman said in a statement.

The groups have been meeting off and on for a year to come up with a new contract that clarifies issues such as salaries, health benefits, and working conditions. They are scheduled to meet Friday morning to continue negotiations.

The schools that voted for an association leader are:

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • Hamilton High
  • Northaven Elementary
  • Raleigh-Bartlett Meadows Elementary
  • Ridgeway Middle
  • Robert R. Church Elementary
  • Vollentine Elementary
  • Westwood High
  • Whitehaven High
  • Winridge Elementary

Those schools must now either conduct a new election or the district will pick the nominee with the second highest number of votes. Association leaders pointed out a board member and a school-level leader on the district’s list that has not been flagged yet.

At last Wednesday’s meeting, members of Ray’s cabinet introduced themselves and sat at tables facing the teachers. Ray, who taught for three years in the late 1990s but has been an employee of the Memphis district his whole career, sat in the first row among teachers. Teachers were scheduled to talk about professional development, compensation, and the district’s employee culture. District leaders closed the meeting to reporters after the introductions.

Council members are expected to pitch solutions to problems teachers face at their schools. The district plans to collect council member feedback to set the agenda for each meeting.