Shelby County Schools officials didn’t need to look far to find the inspiration to propose increasing the minimum wage to $15 for many school district employees.

“We were really looking for a way to address the systemic poverty that we have in Memphis, and we started to think about the legacy that Dr. King had, and we said, ‘How can we, as a school district, make our own contribution?’” SCS Chief Financial Officer Lin Johnson said of the proposal announced by Superintendent Dorsey Hopson at a March 20 school board work session.

While the $15 minimum wage plan is being formalized and begins the process of board approval and implementation, Hopson said he hopes employees will begin to see the wage adjustment reflected on their checks as early as May 1, or, at least by the start of the district’s new fiscal year beginning July 1.

The proposal came on the heels of a report from a joint study between University of Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum examining poverty in Memphis over the past 50 years.

The report indicated a correlation between race, poverty and income inequalities in Memphis in the decades since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination, and revealed an increase in both income disparity and poverty levels since that time.

Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson

“I read it and it just stood out in my mind…here we have more people in poverty in Memphis now than there were 50 years ago, and the income gap between blacks and whites had actually gotten wider,” Hopson told MLK50.

“The biggest challenge probably facing our district is just we have so many kids who live in poverty…we’ve got 40,000 of our kids who live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year, Hopson said of the district that serves 93,000 children. That’s just really suffocating poverty. So we said, ‘Alright, we know poverty is an issue that impacts us every day. How do we design our strategies to make sure these kids in poverty have what they need?’”

The plan, which Hopson expects to bring formally to the board before the next meeting, would impact the wages of about 1,200 of the school district’s 12,500 employees, many of whom earn between $10.60 and $14.98 an hour.

“.. if really want to make sure our parents and our community members have a decent living wage and are able to take care of their families, it’s going to have to be a holististic approach.”  

Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie P. Love

“This is one of the many steps we need to take to make sure our staff members are able to work and provide for their families,” said board member Stephanie P. Love. “The raise will help as it relates to making sure we put more money in our employees’ pockets. But if really want to make sure our parents and our community members have a decent living wage and are able to take care of their families, it’s going to have to be a holistic approach.”

While a nudge to encourage SCS vendors to also meet a $15-an-hour minimum pay standard for employees who work within the school district is reportedly being discussed, the current plan outlines pay increases for many nutrition service workers, educational and office assistants, clerical workers as well as warehouse and school support staff members.

“We’re the second-largest employer in Memphis, and I think this sets a great example for all businesses, for all community organizations, for all governments in terms of how we can take a step forward toward progress,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, the plan would cost a total of $2.4 million from the district’s approximately $1.5 billion annual budget, though less than $1 million would come directly from the SCS budget’s general fund. The remainder of estimated costs would come from state and federal funding sources, including money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and through programs such as Title 1, a program designed to provide supplemental funding to schools with high percentages of students from low-income households. This program not without its critics.

Memphis activists have worked for such progress locally as part of the national Fight for $15 push to raise the minimum wage for fast-food workers. On Feb. 12, hundreds of protesters from around the country marched through Memphis to commemorate the anniversary of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, a large-scale protest in 1968 after the deaths of two sanitation workers were killed in a malfunctioning garbage truck. The march was jointly organized by Fight for $15 and the new Poor People’s Campaign, a renewal of the eponymous campaign led by King, bringing him to Memphis.

Hopson noted as the initial steps of the plan began to crystallize, words King spoke in nearly 50 years stood out: “He talked about the biggest problem in America wasn’t necessarily unemployment, it was that people were working full-time jobs and still couldn’t make ends meet because there were so many people paying these poverty wages.

“And it hit me,” Hopson said, “there are things that have actually gotten worse.”

When asked about any potential hurdles to the timeline or the plan overall, Hopson noted the adjustment may create salary compression, and adjustments will need to be made in such cases: “I would envision coming back to the board in April and saying, ‘Here’s what we found, here’s the plan, here’s the implementation, and then we just press ‘go.’”

While the current focus is sharply on employees who work full-time and are still unable to make ends meet on their current wages, as for the hourly pay of part-time workers, Hopson says he has asked for analysis of the number of part-time employees who are eligible for or are already receiving retirement benefits versus those working part-time who do not receive or qualify to receive retirement benefits.

The timeline and approaching fiscal year raises questions for wages of employees attached to SCS’s summer programming in June and July, Superintendent’s Summer Learning Academy, which is free for district students. While most teachers involved in the summer academy are likely already paid above $15 an hour, according to Hopson, the adjustment would impact eligible nutrition workers.

The summer program includes reading, math, STEM, field trips, arts and crafts and also works to ensure enrolled children are provided with breakfast, snacks and lunch at at time when, often, many children from low-income households face food insecurity.

“That’s another way we’re helping parents and helping the community,” Love said of the program, noting the summer academy also offers an opportunity for teachers to earn additional wages.

“What I hope happens is that employers around the city, and really nationwide, but particularly in Memphis, who can, will also step up to the plate and pay a living wage.”  

Shelby county schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson

Many attached to and in support of the proposal see it as a beginning. Said Johnson of what could or should follow implementation of Hopson’s plan, “The next step after implementing this really relates to our core focus: ensuring that every child has access to high-quality education regardless of their ZIP code, regardless of their race, their ethnicity, or their gender or sexuality. We need to ensure that our kids have the best shot at becoming successful.”

Hopson hopes to provide a blueprint for the rest of the country to follow suit. “I’m just very, very excited to honor [Dr. King’s] legacy in this way, very very excited to be able to lead in this space, and what I hope happens is that employers around the city, and really nationwide, but particularly in Memphis, who can, will also step up to the plate and pay a living wage.”

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Center for Community Change and the Surdna Foundation.