Citing appearance of ‘bias,’ Memphis board members plan to reject philanthropy offer to pay for superintendent search

A school board committee said it would vote to reject an education philanthropy’s offer to pay for the district’s superintendent search.

The Memphis Education Fund last week said it wanted to cover the cost of the search firm the Shelby County Schools board selected. But the board is thinking twice about that offer.

(Memphis Education Fund supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

“I think we need to be cautious about what that looks like if we have an outside entity paying for the search,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs, who said that after receiving calls from constituents, she preferred the district foot the bill to avoid an appearance of “bias.”

“We know that we are in control of the process. I just want to make sure” that there is community buy-in and the process is “fair and transparent,” Bibbs said.

The recommendation of six school board members at the superintendent evaluation committee meeting will go before the full board during a special meeting tentatively scheduled for Tuesday.

The recommendation would have been welcome news to some people at a special meeting later on Wednesday to approve Ray’s contract as interim superintendent. Several teachers and community members spoke out against the idea of philanthropists funding the search.

“As far as the philanthropist funding,” said United Education Association union president Tikeila Rucker, “UEA strongly opposes an outside source … funding the superintendent search. We support a nationwide search — as long as it’s district-funded.”

And a physical education teacher at Bethel Grove Elementary, Toni Jackson said: “We don’t want any outside influence. We don’t need your money. When people come to finance, they want to take control.”

Board members initially thought Memphis Education Fund’s offer would help the district avoid a monthslong bid process since the search firm would be paid through private, rather than public, dollars. But Brenda Allen, the district’s director of procurement, said the professional services the firms provide are not subject to strict procurement laws. That means the district can secure a search firm just as quickly with public funds.

Tosha Downey, director of advocacy for Memphis Education Fund.

Tosha Downey, the director of advocacy for Memphis Education Fund, told board members during the committee meeting that their intention was to address concerns from Memphians that the district would “waste” money on a national search.

“I believe the children of Memphis deserve the absolute best leader in the country,” Downey said.

“And I like that we have a capable leader at the seat and I am convinced that if he is the best, then he’ll be the best after a national search,” she said, referring to Interim Superintendent Joris Ray.

Related: Memphis school staff urge board to ‘stay with Ray’ as interim superintendent contract is set

The board has already received several quotes from national search firms ranging from $6,500 to $50,000, but are still accepting quotes.

One firm that is being considered is Ray & Associates, which was the same Iowa-based firm that successfully placed Kriner Cash as leader of the former Memphis City Schools district in 2008. The firm estimated its search for Shelby County Schools would cost $40,000.

Another firm in the mix, Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, led the failed search for Metro Nashville Public Schools in 2015, which required the school board to relaunch its search process a few months later. The Illinois-based firm also presented a candidate in that search who had abruptly resigned from two previous leadership positions — one amid criticism over lavish spending.

More recently, Denver school leaders hired Hazard Young Attea & Associates to find a superintendent, but the firm came back with only one finalist.