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.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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.