Six months into crafting a new agreement between teacher groups and Shelby County Schools, there have been no talks about salary — a sore topic because Tennessee’s largest district has slipped in average teacher pay rankings in recent years.

In 2014, average teacher salaries in the Memphis district were sixth highest in the state at $57,400 annually, behind places like Alcoa City and Collierville, according to a state comptroller’s report. But three years later, teacher pay in Shelby County Schools has slipped to 11th in the state and was one of only two districts statewide to see the average salary decrease.

The district is also 11th in the state in minimum pay for new teachers, according to Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group.

Compensation was among the top priorities of the two Memphis groups representing licensed educators as they started negotiating a new agreement with district leaders in February. The groups have met about 10 times. A meeting to discuss salaries was scheduled and then cancelled. Union leaders did not know why the district canceled the meeting and a district spokeswoman did not provide an explanation.

Research shows that teachers make the most difference in a student’s academic success, but districts nationwide are struggling to recruit and retain effective educators. An often cited reason is salary, especially in states like Tennessee where the average teacher salary trails both regional and national numbers.

Below is each Tennessee district’s average teacher salary in the 2014-15 (the year before the state starting adding more money to teacher pay) and 2017-18 school years. You can sort by district, pay, and percentage change. The state-run Achievement School District was not included in the comptroller’s report because the Tennessee Department of Education did not include that data in their annual report.

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, told school board members this week the district would continue to struggle to hire and retain teachers if it didn’t pay higher salaries, pay more for advanced degrees, and restore annual increases based on years of experience.

The district enacted salary increases for advanced degrees two years ago, but only for teachers with high evaluation scores, which are partially based on TNReady, the state’s annual student exam. The district used to award “step” salary increases each year as a teacher became more experienced, but that ended in 2013 with the merger of county and city school systems. The district made a one-time fix in 2017 so that new teachers would not make more than more experienced teachers, but did not reinstate step increases.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis-Shelby County Education Association leader Keith Williams before a hearing for former Trezevant High School coach Teli White, who was represented by the association.

“Our ask tonight is as we go back to collaborative conferencing, consider the fact that we opened the school year with over 200 empty classrooms,” Williams said of teacher vacancies at Tuesday’s board meeting. District leaders estimated 120 teacher vacancies on the first day of school Aug. 12. Slipping to 11th in the state in average teacher salary is “unacceptable,” he said.

Vincent Hunter, the principal of Whitehaven High School and leader of a neighborhood school improvement program, said salary is the primary reason teachers leave. In the Memphis area, Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, and Germantown school systems had higher average teacher salaries compared with Shelby County Schools during the 2017-18 school year.

“If we’re not going to be competitive with our compensation, we’re going to continue to have vacancies when we open schools and continue to have high turnovers,” Hunter told Chalkbeat speaking about his own challenges staffing schools. “It’s tough.”

A Shelby County Schools spokeswoman attributed the drop in average teacher salary to higher paid teachers retiring and an influx of cheaper, less experienced educators. About 36% of teachers were born between 1981 and 1996. The district has allocated millions in recent years to increase teacher pay. She was not able to explain why negotiations haven’t progressed. However, there has been some turnover on the district’s negotiation team, including top finance and human resource officials, which could contribute to the slower progress.

The negotiation process, known as collaborative conferencing, is weaker than collective bargaining used in other states after Tennessee lawmakers stripped unions of most of their power in 2011. The law tossed the requirement that districts and organizations representing employees have to reach an agreement. If there’s an impasse, the school board gets the final word on changes to salary structures, working conditions, and more.

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
Arlington Superintendent Tammy Mason greets high school students last August on the first day of school for the new district near Memphis. (2014)

Shelby County Schools had enjoyed the top spot in the state for minimum salaries for beginner teachers, but has been surpassed by six of the seven surrounding districts, including the state-run Achievement School District, according to a data collection by Tennessee Education Association.

Statewide, the average teacher salary grew to nearly $51,000, an increase of 6.2% from 2014 to 2018. Shelby County Schools and Lakeland, a suburb of Memphis, were the only two districts to see their average teacher salaries decrease despite an influx of state money to raise teacher pay.

Arlington Community Schools, in another suburb of Memphis, saw a 5.9% increase in average teacher salary during that four-year period — the largest jump in the Memphis area. Superintendent Tammy Mason said the district prioritized annual cost-of-living increases.

“Commodities in the world aren’t getting cheaper. Prices are always going up, and with that, the cost of living becomes more expensive,” Mason said in a statement. “We recognize that there’s nothing more important to a student getting a strong education than the teacher in the classroom.”

Top average teacher salaries, 2017-18

  1. Oak Ridge $65,334.35
  2. Maryville City $63,864.09
  3. Alcoa City $62,202.54
  4. Arlington $60,635.01
  5. Johnson City $58,370.48
  6. Collierville $58,113.69
  7. Bartlett $57,889.86
  8. Franklin $57,808.40
  9. Germantown $57.487.65
  10. Kingsport City $57.440.32
  11. Shelby County $56,432.60

Top salary increases between 2014-15 and 2017-18

  1. Union City 15.5%
  2. Bledsoe County 13.8%
  3. Van Buren County 12.7%
  4. Dyer County 12.3%
  5. Polk County 12.2%
  6. Etowah County 11.6%
  7. Trousdale County 11.6%
  8. Davidson County 10.9%
  9. Oak Ridge 10.8%
  10. Hamblen County 10.7%