Memphis-Shelby County Schools hears from new slate of superintendent finalists

Five separate portraits of people sitting before a microphone with a red timer on the wall in the background.
The five finalists for Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent interviewed with the board on Friday, Dec. 15, 2023. Clockwise from top, they are: Angela Whitelaw, Carlton Jenkins, Marie Feagins, Yolonda Brown, and Cheryl Proctor. (Screen capture of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

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Editor’s note: Additional information about the finalists can be found at the bottom of this story.

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board interviewed five finalists for superintendent Friday — including one candidate from the district — as it tries to wrap up a tortuous search that began more than a year ago.

The finalists are:

The start of the interview process is a significant step toward hiring a new leader for Tennessee’s largest school district, which has been operating with interim Superintendent Toni Williams in charge since August 2022, when Joris Ray resigned under a cloud of scandal.

The search for Ray’s successor appeared to be nearing an end in the spring, only to collapse as some board members balked at an initial slate of finalists selected by search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates — and the process that produced them.

Whoever emerges as the next leader has a challenging job: Like other public school districts, Memphis is projecting a large budget gap as federal pandemic relief funds expire, leaving leaders to decide which academic programs and personnel they can afford to cut or keep. Plus, the current administration has launched a major facilities overhaul that could involve school consolidations and closures.

The new leader will also have to deal with direct challenges to local control from state leaders and lawmakers, who have stepped up the pressure on public school systems. New policies from the GOP-led state government include restrictions on classroom instruction, changes to school evaluation criteria, and an expansion of private school vouchers.

The five finalists who interviewed with the board Friday emerged from a group of 22 applicants who sought the job this time around, down from 34 applicants in the previous search attempt. Max McGee, president of Hazard Young, said the search drew candidates from outside Tennessee but also included “strong local interest.”

“I am especially impressed with the breadth and depth of the applicant pool,” McGee said in a statement released by MSCS in November.

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Feagins, Jenkins, and Whitelaw also applied in the earlier part of the search process, according to a partial applicant list released at the time, and Jenkins was one of the initial finalists. Brown and Proctor appear to be new applicants.

If the interviews ultimately lead to the selection of a candidate who wins board approval, it will be the first successfully completed national superintendent search since the district was formed in the merger with Shelby County Schools just over a decade ago. The two previous leaders were internal candidates who got promoted: Dorsey Hopson in 2013, and Ray, who took over for Hopson in late 2018.

The board is expected to choose a permanent superintendent early in 2024, and that person would start the job by July 1.

The first attempt to find Ray’s successor unraveled in April amid a board dispute, partly over whether Williams, the district’s former finance chief, was qualified to take the superintendent job. The board agreed to restart the process.

Since then, the board has largely avoided controversy and maintained the revised timeline it laid out in June.

Williams’ contract spells out the ways she could stay with the district when her term as interim chief ends: The next superintendent or the board could reassign her to her previous role as chief financial officer, or give her a chance to stay on as a consultant.

Tomeka Hart Wigginton, a former school board member who helped the board get the search back on track this summer, is expected to play a role in the next phase of the search as well, said board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman, co-chair of the search.

Hart Wigginton will tally the board’s scorecards after this first round of interviews, and announce the results at a public meeting next Tuesday. At that point, the board will narrow the slate to three finalists, using their own evaluations and evaluations from community members to guide their decision.

Those three candidates are expected to be in Memphis in the new year for more extensive interviews in a process that will include more community engagement.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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