Memphis-Shelby County Schools board picks Illinois firm Hazard Young to lead superintendent search

A woman wearing glasses speaks while gesturing with her hands in front of a door covered in college pendant flags
The Memphis-Shelby County School Board voted unanimously to choose the firm Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates to conduct a national search for its next superintendent. Board Chair Althea Greene said she was not aware of controversies surrounding the firm. (Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

The Memphis-Shelby County School Board took a major step Tuesday in its pursuit of a new leader for Tennessee’s largest school district, voting unanimously to choose the firm Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates to conduct a national search.

HYA, of Schaumburg, Illinois, was among four firms that applied for the job. Board Chair Althea Greene; the district’s general counsel and chief legal officer, Kenneth Walker; and its chief of human resources, Quintin Robinson, recommended HYA after vetting all four firms.

The four applicants “are all excellent firms, all who have represented large urban districts and identified superintendents who are working throughout the country now,” board member Kevin Woods said at Tuesday’s meeting. “Hazard Young is a reputable firm, and I stand behind the decision.”

But before the board vote, a number of speakers expressed concerns that the process of selecting the firm had not been transparent enough, and that members of the public should have had the opportunity to examine how the firm was ultimately selected. 

After the meeting, Greene said it was up to the board, not the advisory committee or the public, to make the choice. 

“We followed the procurement process. We provided that information to board members,” she said, responding to a question from The Commercial Appeal about public input on the search firm selection. “Now we will be able to provide it to, through open records, to anybody who requests that information.” 

“But it was not something that we needed to publicly have a conversation about before this board voted on it and decided that they agreed with the search firm,” she said.

The board will pay the firm a base consulting fee of $38,000, according to the board’s agreement with the firm, plus some additional costs.

Hazard Young has blemishes on its record

HYA has more than 30 years of experience and has conducted superintendent searches for large urban school districts such as Atlanta’s and Denver’s in recent years. In some cases, though, it has been accused of not properly vetting candidates. 

For example, it recommended a candidate with a history of sexual harassment allegations to lead Illinois’ Des Plaines Elementary District 62 in 2016, the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago reported. 

In 2015, HYA defended its record to the Tennessean, after it was revealed that one of the finalists it recommended for the Metro Nashville Schools superintendent job in 2008 had left his former district in Fresno, California, in financial ruin.

“We’ve made mistakes, and some we’ve learned about after” the search, a firm partner told the Tennessean at the time. “But of the roughly 5,000 to 6,000 candidates we’ve recommended ... we’ve done a very good job.”

When Chalkbeat asked about HYA’s controversies, Greene said that she was not aware of them, and that the board selected the firm based on “what was submitted.” She left without taking more questions.

The MSCS board announced a national search last August, after former superintendent Joris Ray resigned amid allegations of improper relations with employees and abuse of power. It hopes to have a new superintendent in the job by May.

AP African American Studies course renewed

In other business, for a second year, students at White Station High School will get the chance to take an Advanced Placement African American Studies Pilot course.

The board approved a recommendation to continue the pilot, which the College Board is administering in 75 high schools around the nation. 

Developed by college professors and academics around the nation, the course offers a more rigorous curriculum on the lives of Black people in the nation, as opposed to simply history. 

“AP African American Studies Pilot will increase student access to culturally relevant coursework and challenging college-level coursework,” the recommendation reads. 

“Per College Board, White Station High School was chosen based on the school’s strong commitment to AP course work, its strong AP offerings, its diverse student population, and its history of being one of the first high schools in Tennessee to offer AP Seminar and Research.”

The second year of the pilot will cost the district $1,299. 

The College Board revamped the pilot to exclude certain authors after it came under fire in Florida. That state’s Department of Education barred the course amid claims that it violated a state law that restricts how lessons about race and gender identity are taught.

Bureau Chief Tonyaa Weathersbee oversees Chalkbeat Tennessee’s education coverage. Contact her at tweathersbee@chalkbeat.org.

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