About five months after former superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced he would step down as leader of Tennessee’s largest district, the school board has not settled on how to find his replacement.
This week, three Shelby County Schools board members said they wanted to stop the whole process and hire Joris Ray, the career Memphis educator appointed as interim superintendent.
The search comes at a time when Memphis student reading levels are rising, but not nearly as fast as leaders were hoping, and when Nashville’s school district is about to enter the fray of searching for a superintendent.
So, what could happen next?
The search could end soon.
Board member Stephanie Love, who nominated Ray for the interim position in December, proposed a resolution Monday to end the search and hire Ray. The board is expected to vote on the resolution during the monthly meeting on April 30. Two other board members expressed support for Love’s resolution, but she would need three more in order for it to pass.
Love said Ray had a long track record of helping move the district forward in his previous role overseeing academic operations, which includes boosting student attendance and enrollment. He has garnered a reputation as a problem solver and Love said his initial plan is strong.
“When I talk to people in Memphis, the majority of people say they want someone who is an educator. We want someone who knows the school system. We want someone who understands Memphis. We want someone who can come in and can actually start doing the work,” she said.
If Ray isn’t hired this month, the board will likely hire a search firm.
Board members recommended Ray & Associates to take on the search for $44,000 if Love’s resolution fails, which could signal members anticipate a close vote. The Iowa-based firm is the same one that the former Memphis City Schools board used to find Kriner Cash in 2008 — the last time the district looked outside its own staff for a leader. That search took about a year and ended with five finalists. Community members offered input in meetings and surveys.
Under the firm’s proposal, the board would observe eight to 12 candidates via video conference as the firm asks questions before narrowing down the pool to two or three candidates who would come to Memphis for public interviews.
The firm also has conducted superintendent searches in Detroit and Charlotte, and is currently working on a search in Baltimore. If the board’s eventual hire were to leave for any reason within two years, Ray & Associates would conduct another search and only charge travel expenses for candidates and consultants.
A national search doesn’t mean a Memphian wouldn’t be considered.
When he was appointed as interim in December, Ray said he planned to apply for the permanent position.
But there are likely others within Shelby County Schools who are interested, and a search could prompt more Memphians to put their hat in the ring, said board member Miska Clay Bibbs.
“A national search means you could pick someone who is tried and true already from Memphis,” she said.
Board member Althea Greene, who retired from teaching last year after 38 years, said she thought the district had achieved more success when the superintendent already worked in Memphis.
“The candidates we have brought from the outside have been resume builders. They worked in this district and moved on,” said Greene, who first expressed her disapproval of a national search when she was appointed to the board in February. “Our success has come from within.”
When we asked readers to fill out a survey on what they hope for in a superintendent, it was more important that the next leader be an educator than from Memphis.
Memphians want community input into the search.
When board chairwoman Shante Avant initially announced there would be a committee of community members to help pick the next superintendent, several groups and individuals got excited about the possibility. The board later backtracked, but promised some form of community input during the process.
Board members did not say Monday if they would allow community input in the interview process if they hire Ray this month. Neither of the proposals the board is considering have mentioned community input. But that doesn’t mean board members haven’t been talking to the community. Several board members mentioned conversations they’ve been having with constituents, teachers, and staff about the next superintendent.
Ray & Associates said in its proposal that the search would include online surveys in multiple languages and community meetings to gather public input on what they want in a superintendent.
A new superintendent would carry out the district’s vision, but the board is still figuring it out.
No matter who becomes superintendent, that person will need a better idea of the board’s priorities, said board member Kevin Woods.
“I encourage my colleagues that as we go to identify our next superintendent, ask ourselves have we identified the things that are priorities for the district that he or she is being asked to carry out,” said Woods, who did not take sides on Love’s resolution Monday.
Without a clear vision, Avant said the board could “go down the slippery slope of making decisions based on people rather than what are the priorities that this board has set. Then that superintendent can set out to fulfill those priorities.”
The search firm, if hired, would help in this area, according to Ray & Associates’ proposal. The firm’s consultants would help board members reflect on their current governance and help create expectations for the superintendent.
Some initiatives will likely go forward regardless of who is superintendent.
The proposed policy to hold back young students who don’t read on grade level had been discussed for at least a year when Sharon Griffin, the former chief of schools, was with the district. She left the district in May to lead the state-run Achievement School District.
Antonio Burt, the district’s chief academic officer, had already been working on a plan last year to expand the Innovation Zone for the district’s lowest performing schools and cycle out the ones that have shown significant improvement.
Those initiatives are going to be a part of the district’s proposed budget for next school year and would likely already be in place by the time the board finished a national search.
The next superintendent has the opportunity to foster a better relationship with the state.
Working closely with the Tennessee Department of Education and its new commissioner Penny Schwinn will be a must for whomever assumes the position of superintendent. A Memphis insider for Shelby County Schools, such as Ray, could be helpful in relaying the deep challenges of the city to the state.
Ray has met with Schwinn a few times since she started in February, but it’s too early to tell how that relationship would form if he is named superintendent.
As Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools enrolls about 10 percent of the state’s public school students. Memphis also is home to the vast majority of the students in the state-run district.
In the past, that relationship has been tenuous. Memphis is waiting to find out if it must release student contact information to the state-run district. Shelby County Schools led the charge in a lawsuit against the state over school funding, saying the state’s formula is antiquated and insufficient. The state leases aging buildings from the local district and has had a hard time getting necessary repairs. On top of that, they are competing for students.
Correction, April 15, 2019: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated appointing Joris Ray as superintendent would require five votes. According to school board policy, that decision would require a two-thirds majority, or six votes.