Back (Pay) Talk

News of unusual back pay proposal draws mixed reactions

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
UFT President Michael Mulgrew

A potential back pay compromise that has emerged in new contract talks between the city and teachers union sparked mixed reactions Friday.

On the one hand, some said, the proposal to spread more than $3 billion in retroactive raises over a nine-year contract offers the city an affordable payment option, while creating some budget stability. But on the other hand, critics said, the deal could set a damaging pattern for other unions while still requiring serious givebacks from the teachers.

Meanwhile, the mayor declined to confirm the negotiation details, which were revealed in a New York Times report, while union officials noted that more options were on the table than just those leaked to the press.

“There’s just a whole lot of potential ways to settle this,” said Doug Turetsky, chief of staff for the Independent Budget Office, who noted that both the city and union say they have viable proposals. “Sometimes realism is in the eye of the beholder.”

The Times report, which offered the first glimpse into intense, ongoing city-union negotiations, said the long contract would include $3.4 billion in retroactive raises to match ones that other unions received several years ago. The deal could also include raises for more recent years. It would extend from 2009, when the teachers’ last contract expired, until 2018, after Mayor Bill de Blasio faces re-election.

Such a deal could make the sizable back pay affordable to the city, which says it does not have anywhere near that amount available in its current budget, said Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-backed watchdog group.

If the deal gives teachers the 4 percent raises that they missed in earlier bargaining rounds, they may be more willing to accept smaller raises for the latest rounds — setting a precedent for “reasonable settlements” with the other municipal unions, Brecher added.

“I think if you’re getting an amount of cash like that it makes it easier to be content with a more modest package going forward,” he said.

But that very possibility might make the union wary: The other 151 municipal unions that lack contracts would not be pleased if the United Federation of Teachers set a pattern of modest pay increases.

“We should not undercut other unions by getting our retroactive money and then skimping everyone else for the subsequent years,” said Peter Lamphere, a high school teacher and member of the UFT’s MORE caucus, which has called for a more inclusive and transparent bargaining process.

What’s more, even if the raises were spread out over several years, the union would still likely have to stomach serious cost-savings, most likely relating to health insurance, but also possibly in other areas, such as its pool of paid teachers without full-time jobs.

De Blasio said as much in brief comments to reporters Friday.

“We can’t get where we need to go without cost savings,” he said. “And I think folks in the labor community understand that.”

That is not necessarily the case. Some in the union have suggested that the city has hidden funds in its budget that could be used for worker raises.

“I definitely do not agree with the position that [the raises] will require concessions from the union,” Lamphere said. “I think the money is there.”

The UFT, like de Blasio, declined to comment on the details of the news report Friday.

But one union official noted that such a lengthy contract would be highly unusual, and risky, if economic conditions worsened or problems arose with other provisions of the deal during the long life of the contract. The official added that UFT President Michael Mulgrew has “talked about a whole variety of lengths of contracts” with city negotiators.

Of course, while back pay is a major issue in city-teacher negotiations, it is hardly the only one. Changes to the new teacher-evaluation system will almost certainly be up for discussion, as well as the various non-instructional tasks now required of teachers.

MORE has called for smaller class sizes, additional in-school supports for students, and teacher evaluations that do not incorporate standardized-test scores, among other demands. It says the union should do more to rally its members around those causes while bargaining is still underway.

“There’s a window right now where there are a lot of things in play,” Lamphere said. “And the more pressure we bring to bear on the city the better.”

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 [email protected]

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