As Memphis district works through pandemic, board grants 2-year contract extension to superintendent

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray speaks to educators at the district’s central office auditorium.
Superintendent Joris Ray’s contract now extends to 2025. (Shelby County Schools)

The Shelby County Schools board extended Superintendent Joris Ray’s contract for two years to 2025, citing the need for stable leadership amid the pandemic’s disruption of education. 

The contract amendment increases his annual salary to $293,550, up 3% from $285,000. Certified employees received a 3% raise last year, which under Ray’s contract, means he was eligible for a matching increase. He also gained 10 additional vacation days.

Board member Stephanie Love said Ray has not only looked out for students’ needs, but also their families. 

“When we think about us being in a pandemic knowing that our students would not be able to go to school, this district provided laptops for every student. When we think about our parents who have lost jobs during the pandemic, this district partnered with FedEx to provide jobs for our parents,” she said. 

The decision shows the school board is reinforcing Ray’s efforts to improve the closely watched district, the largest in Tennessee, where students have been struggling academically for decades. Despite pressure from the state to open school buildings in the face of the pandemic, Ray has steadfastly resisted.

Ray’s initial contract started in 2019 and was set to expire in 2023. The year 2025 is the target for the district’s “Destination 2025” goals. 

By 2025, the board hopes that 80% of high school graduates are ready for college or a job, that all of those students enroll in college or are hired in sought-after careers, and that 90% of students graduate on time. To accomplish those goals, Ray’s administration has focused on improving literacy, developing and retaining teachers, and exposing students to more career certifications.

The extension follows Ray’s recent performance evaluation showing that he “completely met expectations” last school year based on a 4.13 out of a possible 5 score from the board. He received accolades for the people he hired for his leadership team and for securing laptops and tablets for all of the district’s 90,000 students. 

Thirty-eight people, mostly administrators but also teachers, community leaders, and even the CEO of a national education organization, supported Ray’s leadership during the public comment portion of the meeting.

Principal Margaret McKissick-Larry, who is the longest-serving employee in the district with 60 years, said Ray “has garnered the support and respect of the community, at large, which account for the improvements across the board.” She also noted that Ray has “created an atmosphere of hope for the future of the district.”

When the pandemic began, Shelby County Schools was the first in the state to close its buildings in an effort to prevent spreading the virus. Because most students in Memphis did not have a district-issued laptop or tablet and internet access, Ray held off requiring online classes until after the district could distribute devices and internet hotspots this summer. 

He kept school building doors closed to students this fall despite pressure from the state to reopen after COVID-19 cases surged in July. He has also said his plan to reopen classrooms for in-person learning in January could be delayed if community spread worsens. All other school districts in the state have at least partially reopened school buildings, though many have intermittently closed when COVID-19 has caused staffing shortages.

The district still has a long way to go to meet its 2025 goals. About 78% of the district’s class of 2020 graduated on time, down from 79% the year before and the first significant decline since the initiative started. The state’s graduation rate also dipped this year, but only by one-tenth a percentage point.

For reading skills, about 24% of the district’s third graders met state requirements on the latest annual exam in 2019, down from 27% the year before. The district wants 90% of third graders to  meet state requirements by 2025. 

Statewide, 36% of third graders met requirements in 2019, about the same as the year before. The state’s goal is 75% by 2025. State lawmakers canceled exams for 2020 because of the pandemic.

The decision to support Ray in continuing to pursue the district’s goals was “painless,” said board member Kevin Woods.

“It’s us allowing more time for Dr. Ray to continue to do the great work, so he can continue to recruit great talent, and continue to make sure that we have a district of choice for people across Shelby County,” he said.

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