What persuaded Memphis’ school board members to quickly name Joris Ray superintendent

Memphis school board members said they truncated what started out as a potential 18-month search into three months of observing now-Superintendent Joris Ray “take charge” of the district.

Board members Wednesday cited Ray’s firm hand while serving as interim — effectively a tryout — as a key factor in their unanimous selection of the 22-year Memphis educator. During his nearly four months in charge, Ray fired two cabinet members, developed next year’s budget, laid out ambitious short-term goals, and traveled to Nashville to stand up to the governor against vouchers.

“For me, that is what shifted the conversation. He was willing to take charge and respond,” said board member Miska Clay Bibbs. “It’s one thing to send a press release, it’s another to go talk to the governor… And frankly, [before now] it has not been the superintendent who was at the table with us.”

Ray officially takes the helm of Shelby County Schools five months after his predecessor Dorsey Hopson resigned. He will be responsible for supervising the operation of Tennessee’s largest district, which includes a $1 billion budget and more than 100,000 students, a majority of whom come from families with low incomes.

Several board members described a flood of emails, calls, texts, and conversations with constituents expressing support for Ray. And since much of that support came from those he would be charged with leading, that was “critical” for board chair Shante Avant.

“I was in favor of the [national] search because it was a great way to vet Dr. Ray or any other candidate,” Avant said. “However, it did become very obvious … the people he will need to lead in order to do that work to get the academic gains we need — he had their support.”

That was enough to satisfy board members who skipped gathering more public input and simply made a decision — despite an earlier promise to consult with the community.

“You can always receive more calls, receive more emails, talk to more stakeholders,” board member Kevin Woods said. “But few stakeholders are more important than our teachers, leaders, and parents, and they spoke loud and clear about our current superintendent.”

Some advocates said the process was too fast and didn’t include broad enough input. About a dozen members of the parent organization Memphis Lift chanted outside the board’s meeting Tuesday demanding a national search and community meetings.

Althea Greene, the board’s newest member, appointed in February, said the board’s unity speaks to the confidence Ray’s new bosses have in him.

“You didn’t see us arguing or fighting. We were in total harmony,” she said. “We didn’t send emails or call each other. We did none of that. But it was evident we were all on the same page.”

Board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman said Ray already had a lot of community support and the district didn’t have time to onboard someone who might not be as familiar with it.

As as interim superintendent, she said Ray had the attitude of “if I’m going to do this a day, a week, a month, a year, I have to take responsibility.”

His initial goals for the district, including more educator training to spot childhood trauma and building a better work culture in the district were “tangible,” Dorse-Coleman said.

“Some were already in progress, some were things he was able to add on to make it work,” she said. “They were sound and reasonable.”

“These children need help now so why not start now?” she continued. “We knew we had to elect a superintendent, and the good thing is we didn’t wait 18 months. We did what we needed to do.”