Memphis school board appears poised to make superintendent choice with little public discussion

The Shelby County Schools board postponed discussion Tuesday of a resolution to suspend a national search for a superintendent and hire the interim leader — setting members up to make a critical decision with minimal public discussion.

Board member Stephanie Love proposed a resolution earlier this month to pass on hiring a search firm that could bring in candidates interested in leading Tennessee’s largest school district. She instead proposed the board hire Joris Ray, the career Memphis educator who has served as interim superintendent since January.

Love’s resolution is still scheduled for a vote April 30, said Jerica Phillips, a spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools. But it was not on the agenda for the board’s Tuesday work session, when items for board members to vote on are normally discussed, and went unmentioned at the meeting.

“I will bring it forth at the appropriate time,” Love said in a text message Tuesday. She declined to explain why discussion was postponed as she and other board members headed to another meeting.

Members of parent advocacy organization Memphis Lift show support for a national search for the district’s next superintendent. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

It’s a puzzling turn in Memphis’s search for a schools chief to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left in January for health insurance company Cigna.

According to district policy, board members can either hire a search firm or appoint someone outright as superintendent. If they appoint someone, two-thirds of the board, or six of nine members, would need to vote in favor.

When Love presented the resolution earlier this month, it appeared that the board was split three ways — three in favor of hiring Ray, three who wanted a national search, and three who did not state their stance.

A companion resolution to hire search firm Ray & Associates if the board decided against hiring Ray outright was also missing from the agenda Tuesday.

The search for a superintendent has so far not included public input, though board members have promised it will. But some district employees who want board members to hire Ray have been making their voices heard. About 30 people attending the Tuesday work session wore “Stay with Ray” T-shirts with the Shelby County Schools logo.

At least one person with a Shelby County Schools badge was handing out the T-shirts in the “Teacher Toolbox,” which offers free classroom supplies at the district’s central office.

Alexander Roberson, who works in the district’s charter school office, said the handouts also happened during business hours.

Can confirm this occurred during normal work hours. — ABR (@TweetsByABR) April 23, 2019

Another district spokeswoman said after the meeting that she was unaware the T-shirts were being handed out and did not know who was behind the effort. Vincent McCaskill, the executive director of SchoolSeed, the nonprofit that raises money for Memphis schools and operates the “Teacher Toolbox,” said his organization was not behind the shirts.

“We support the superintendent’s office no matter who is in it,” said McCaskill.

Ray has openly said he wants the the permanent position since he was appointed interim superintendent in December. It would cap a career in Memphis that he began as a social studies teacher at Kirby Middle School in 1997 and saw him promoted to assistant principal three years later. He went on to oversee alternative schools for expelled students in the district before heading up the district’s non-academic support.

Not all of his employment history is publicly available: A 2007 investigation into allegations of mismanaging school funds that was found to be unsubstantiated was kept out of his labor file, but that was not an issue for several board members Chalkbeat talked to last week.

“That wasn’t a question for me,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs. “That meant that it wasn’t substantiated. Here we go again, going on what if.”

Ray was also cleared in an investigation into an anonymous sexual harassment claim, the district said last week, because the district could not identify his accuser. The complaint was also not in his labor file, and the district’s general counsel has not responded to Chalkbeat’s questions about why it was missing.

Update, April, 24, 2019: This story has been updated with comment from Vincent McCaskill.