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District's $15 Minimum Wage Pitch Seen as Part of School-Equity Strategy

While fast food workers across the country are campaigning to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, the Shelby County, Tenn., superintendent wants to do the same for all full-time district workers.

By the end of the month, the school board is expected to vote on a proposal to amend its budget to raise the minimum wage for full-time district employees to $15 an hour. And workers could see the difference as soon as their first May paychecks, Dorsey Hopson, the district's superintendent, said.

Hopson, who made the official pitch to the school board in late March, said a number of factors led him and his chief financial officer, Lin Johnson, to explore the living wage increase for Shelby County Schools employees. Shelby County district includes the city of Memphis.

Hopson Bio Pic_ (002).jpg

One factor was the high poverty rate. About 40,000 students live in households with incomes of less than $10,000 a year, he said. And many of those heads of households are parents who work for Shelby County Schools in low wage jobs. (The school district is the county's second-largest employer.)

The timing of the announcement was also significant. The city was preparing for the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was in Memphis, Tenn., for a sanitation workers' strike in 1968 when he was shot and killed.

The living wage increase is also part of the district's equity efforts, which include student-based budgeting that sends more money and supports to schools with the highest needs, they said.

"As we talk about how to be a part of the poverty solution, I think it's no secret that paying a living wage is a great step," Hopson said. "We thought about it, and said 'What would it look like if we paid our employees a living wage? Would that have an impact on our parents and possibly create better opportunities for them to be more involved in their kids' education?' "

Hopson is hoping that other county employers would follow the school district's lead.

"At the end of the day, when we help our employees it ultimately helps our students," he said. "I think about [the] lower-wage jobs here in Memphis. These are parents who send their kids to our schools. So, to the extent that employers raise wages and that trickles down into the home, and starts the first step in trying to eradicate some of this suffocating poverty, it ultimately...will have a positive impact on our students."

Dorsey was also pushed into action by an encounter with an educational assistant, who had worked in one of the district's high-needs schools for about a year and a half and was considering taking a job at a mall because of the higher pay.

"It just hit me like a ton of bricks to think that there are instances where we're not paying folks who are working hand in hand with our most precious resources, and they may have to leave that to go work to sell some clothes," he said. "That just didn't seem right."

Hopson said the school board and elected officials have so far been receptive to the proposal.

(The Shelby County Schools effort to raise the minimum wage is not part of the national Fight For $15 movement, but the district is aware of the campaign, Hopson said.)

The proposal is likely to cost the district about $2.4 million annually, with only about $900,000 coming from its operating budget. The rest will come from federal funds such as Head Start and Title I, the federal program for schools educating disadvantaged students.

The majority of Shelby County Schools employees already make close to $15 an hour, and the increase will apply to about 1,250 employees who are mostly teaching assistants, maintenance staff, cafeteria workers and clerical workers, like secretaries.

"The majority of the employees who were getting paid below the $15 were actually educational assistants who have a direct contact with our students and who are making that impact," said Johnson, the district's CFO. "We see it as an investment back into our students."

Shelby County Schools have been under financial stress in recent years, following the 2013 merger of the suburban Shelby County Schools with Memphis City Schools. A year later six suburban communities broke away from Shelby County to form their own school districts. Over the last few years the district has had to make major budget cuts, and this is the first year that the district is in the black, according to Chalkbeat, an education news website.

Johnson said Shelby County still will be able cover the cost of the wage increase in its operating budget in future years if federal funds such as Head Start and Title I were cut.

Photo caption: Dorsey Hopson, superintendent of Shelby County Schools in Tennessee. Photo courtesy the Shelby County School District.

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