Saturday, June 15, 2024

Memphis-Shelby County Schools is cutting 1,100 positions. What that means

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The Memphis-Shelby County Schools system is planning to cut 1,100 positions, slightly more than 400 of which are vacant. Impacted employees are being offered other jobs in the district – but those jobs could come with different titles and salaries.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Marie Feagins announced the changes in a Monday email, which was obtained by The Commercial Appeal.

Memphis-Shelby County Schools, she said, was facing severe challenges. In the 2022-23 academic year, 78% of the district’s students weren’t scoring proficiently on the English Language Arts (ELA) section of the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) tests. Another 83% weren’t scoring proficiently on the math section. The dropout rate was nearly 15%, the truancy rate was 41%, and there were 1,069 total position vacancies – 552 teacher vacancies and 517 support post vacancies.

“The work is urgent, and our corresponding actions must match the urgency,” she said.

Through those corresponding actions, she continued, “approximately 1,100 positions will be impacted, with vacant roles making up 41% of the positions.”

The Commercial Appeal spoke to MSCS board commissioner Amber Huett-Garcia, who confirmed that more than 400 of the 1,100 positions being cut were vacant. Another 383 of the affected positions were being funded by the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund that was implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That funding source has provided MSCS with hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years – but it’s coming to an end, so the district no longer has room to support those positions.

The 383 ESSER funded positions and the roughly 300 other non-vacant positions that could be cut would imply that about 700 people could stand to be unemployed.  

But that isn’t the case.

Alternate offers

As Feagins noted in the email, people whose positions are being affected have been offered jobs in the schools, which she thought would serve a dual purpose – the district could avoid layoffs while filling vacant roles in classrooms.

“To better support the needs identified above and provide job security to personnel where possible, I decided that offering impacted personnel a position in or closer to the classroom would benefit both students and staff,” she said in the email.

So far, the district has made 363 offers to people whose positions are being affected and received 171 acceptances. More offers, she explained, would come.

If people accepted offers for new positions, they would begin in their new role on July 1. Some, the email said, would be transitioning out of 12-month positions, and their return dates would be included in their official acceptance letters. People transitioning from 12-month roles to 10-month roles are generally those switching from central office roles to teacher positions.

If people declined offers for new positions, their final day in their current posts would be June 30, and their final paycheck would come Aug. 16. They would continue to receive benefits until Aug. 31.

“If you are impacted, I hope that you will strongly consider the proposed positions offered to you and continue this deep and necessary work to serve our 110,000 students,” Feagins said in a YouTube video, released after the email was sent out.

Huett-Garcia confirmed that every employee with a position being cut was being offered another role within the district, which is a point that MSCS officials have repeatedly emphasized in the past.

How we got here

The plan to cut jobs and shift people to other roles is nothing new for Feagins or the district. To the contrary, it was discussed before Feagins – who stepped into the superintendent role on April 1 – even interviewed for the position.

During a board retreat in November, as board members discussed how to deal with a potential $150 million budget gap due to the looming end of COVID-federal relief funds, then-interim Superintendent Toni Williams brought up eliminating positions and moving staffers into vacant ones that were closer to classrooms. At the time, a proposed 675 positions were expected to be impacted.  

Then, in early February, during Feagins’ final interview for the superintendent job, she asserted that top portions of the district’s front office were “pretty bloated,” and that “some shifts have to take place, in order to make the work move as we need it to move.”

She reaffirmed this stance during a check-in with members of the media in Mid-April, roughly two weeks after starting the job.

“We recognize that there are some shifts that will take place,” she said. “Certainly, before we land on a decision, we’re talking about impacting the lives and homes of real people. … It is not just, ‘Let’s just cut to get to a certain number.’ It’s being very strategic about, if there are cuts, where those would land.”

She again alluded to the need for personnel shifts when she presented MSCS’ preliminary fiscal year 2025 budget to the Shelby County Commission on May 1, explaining that job duplication in the office had contributed to “a lot of the bottlenecks we have in our efforts.” That budget appears close to being balanced, implying that the district has taken care of the potential $150 million shortfall it was discussing in November.

According to the district’s FY 2025 proposed budget book, MSCS is currently projecting $1.871 billion in revenues and $1.881 billion in expenditures.

Feagins also discussed personnel changes about a week after the budget presentation, during another check-in with media members – but she emphasized that layoffs wouldn’t be a necessity.

“Just to name that clearly, layoffs is not how we look at it. What we are doing is decentralizing a central office that has a nice load of personnel,” she said at the time. “We have enough opportunities and jobs for every person who will be impacted by the shifts to have a job… It just may have a different title.”

Different salaries

That title, however, could come with a different salary – which is one of the issues that caused consternation within the district.

The personnel shifts and salary reductions were discussed by Feagins and board members during the second day of the spring MSCS board retreat on June 1.

Multiple times during the meeting, board members and Feagins referenced the possibility of employees accepting alternate positions experiencing significant pay cuts; the number $20,000 was tossed around a few times in the conversation. Board members wondered aloud whether the pay cuts could have an impact on performance.

Board member Kevin Woods asked if it might have made more sense not to offer people impacted by job cuts other roles.

“Was it the right call to say, ‘Here’s a lower salary, you’re making $130,000. Now, here’s $60,000,’” he said. “Or would the right call have been to cut those positions? … It’s not an easy decision.’”

Woods went on to say that he was just posing the question, not endorsing layoffs.

Board chair Althea Greene also expressed some concern during the discussion, saying that even people who accepted alternate roles might not be motivated.

“I just don’t want us to send people that don’t want to be somewhere, somewhere,” she said at the retreat. “If you send a lot of disgruntled people, where they don’t want to be, I don’t care how much support you put into the building. It’s a building on fire. They’re not going to be affective, and they’re not going to work. But I will take the job, because I’ve got to pay my mortgage on my condo, and I’ve got a child in college, but I don’t want to be there.”

Feagins, however, asserted that there were people in the district who were being overpaid.

“There are people who have like three years of experience making $175,000,” she said. “That’s a real conversation.”

She also emphasized the alternative to her proposed personnel shifts – major layoffs.

“We’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re reducing people’s salaries, either reducing it by what is being reduced by or reducing it to zero because you don’t have a job,” she said. “And that’s the scary reality of it.”

School board blackout

Despite what Feagins has framed as an effort to avoid layoffs, some employees have been frustrated. And a flyer has been circulating advertising to a “School Board Blackout,” encouraging people to show up to the special called school board meeting on June 11, which starts at 6:45, dressed in all black.

The purpose, the flyer said, is “to demonstrate unified concern about the rapid and chaotic changes taking place in Memphis-Shelby County Schools.”

John Klyce covers education and children’s issues. He can be reached at john.klyce@commericalappeal.com

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