What Shelby County’s retired teachers told the district about their threatened benefits

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Retired educators attend a forum in Memphis last summer before the Shelby County Board of Education to discuss proposed cost-cutting changes to their retirement plans.

Angry retired educators packed a Shelby County Board of Education forum Monday night to protest proposed changes to their health insurance plans designed to help the district pay down a looming $1.5 billion debt.

Hundreds of retirees attended the forum, and dozens spoke. Their message: The district’s cost-cutting ideas are misguided, life-threatening and disrespectful to teachers who dedicated decades in the classroom with the expectation that they would be adequately medically insured for the rest of their lives.

Ed Riddick
Ed Riddick

“Had I known what we’d be talking about at this point, I wouldn’t have retired,” said Ed Riddick, 63, a 37-year employee. Riddick retired from Arlington High School to care for his sick spouse because he thought his medical insurance would adequately cover her. He said the prospect of navigating massive changes in his family coverage is frightening. “Changing out of the Cigna plan is like jumping off a cliff without a parachute,” he told the board.

District leaders are exploring ways to reduce retirees’ non-pension benefits by, among other things, cutting retirees’ spouses from the plan, switching retirees to a state plan, or giving retirees cash to shop for their own insurance.

Bob Cannon
PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Bob Cannon

“We all worked our rears off for years,” said Bob Cannon, 79, a 30-year employee. “I love this place and I gave my life to this place. … I’m an old man … and I want some insurance.” Cannon said that, when he went to work for the former Memphis City Schools, he was told that insurance was the best feature of his benefits package. Cannon said he needs good medical insurance to cover three people in his family, including his handicapped daughter.



Susan Goodman
Susan Goodman

“This is the first time I’ve ever been grateful that my husband died of cancer before now,” said Susan Goodman, 69, who worked for 30 years in several districts throughout the state. “This is an incredibly hideous thing that could happen at the end of their lives. Many people have given their lives for the county, for the city, for the schools, and are now being treated so incredibly horrible.” Goodman is relying on medical, visual and dental coverage to help care for her disabled adult son.


Board members told retirees they will consider the feedback of those impacted by the changes and reminded them that they have not made any changes to health plans at this point.

State legislators and county commissioners have warned that the financially strapped school district could go bankrupt if it fails to pay down its debt in the near future.

The debt grew over time after the self-insured district, which is the result of a 2013 merger between Memphis City Schools and the former Shelby County Schools, repeatedly paid for medical costs as they arose rather than pay the “actuarial” costs of the plan, which administrators estimate at $125 million a year. Currently, the district spends about $30 million on its retirement health care plan.

Goodman said the board has not adequately explained options offered by the district and complained that many teachers are confused.

Last month, at the request of the board, administrators presented several options that could reduce the annual actuarial costs, including:

  • Writing retirees a monthly check for $10 for every year served — to go toward private insurance or insurance purchased through the federal Affordable Care Act — reducing the debt by about $430 million;
  • Switching district employees and retirees to the state’s employee health insurance plan at a cost savings to the district of $233 million. Administrators said the state plan provides better benefits than the district’s current plan. A switch would have to be voted on and approved by a majority of the district’s 10,000 employees;
  • Cutting all retirees’ benefits in 2020, reducing the district’s debt by $255 million;
  • Cutting district spouses from the plan, at a cost savings of $166 million.

Administrators are asking current teachers and retirees for feedback on insurance coverage options outlined on the district’s website.

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

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.”