MSCS board prepares to narrow superintendent search, without public input on finalists

Woman in an red shirt and jeans holding a microphone, speaking in front of a stage.
Althea Greene, chair of the Memphis-Shelby County School Board, speaks at a January community meeting on the superintendent search. Greene told members of the community advisory committee that finalists for the job would be grilled only by board members, not the public. (Tonyaa Weathersbee / Chalkbeat)

Memphis-Shelby County Schools plans to whittle a growing list of applicants for its superintendent job to three finalists within the next month. For this final stage of the process, the school board isn’t planning to solicit more community feedback. 

“I don’t want the next superintendent to be about a popularity contest,” school board Chair Althea Greene said Monday afternoon in a meeting of the community advisory committee that’s helping the board search for a successor to Joris Ray. 

The committee, which had held two previous public meetings, is not scheduled to meet again. 

Some members of the group said the board’s decision to close down avenues for public feedback before finalists are selected raises questions about its commitment to transparency and community involvement in the process.

With Memphians citing integrity and transparency among the most desired qualities for a new school district leader, those questions could influence whether the board can earn community trust in its ultimate selection. 

“It just seems strange,” advisory committee member Lurene Kelley said, to go from “openness” before finalists are selected to “close it down” for feedback after finalist interviews.

The board’s own policy for selecting a superintendent suggests that community members have a chance to develop questions for finalists once they are selected: “The Board shall hold at least two (2) community meetings to allow members of the community and employees to meet with and submit questions to the finalists,” the policy says. “Copies of their resumes will be made available for review.” 

For now, the board has created a portal for members of the community to submit questions (there’s a Spanish-language portal also) that can be posed to the finalists. That portal is open through the end of the month. The public is invited to attend finalist interviews on Friday, April 21, and Saturday, April 22. Resumes will be available closer to the interview dates, Greene told Chalkbeat through public-relations firm KQ Communications, which is working with the board during the search. 

Board members for Memphis-Shelby County Schools have committed to completing what would be the first national superintendent search for the merged district since its formation a decade ago, The Commercial Appeal reported. The board is expected to vote on a finalist in late April or early May. 

For many invested in Memphis education, the process represents a referendum on the board’s decision four years ago to abandon a national search and select Ray, who was then the interim superintendent. Ray resigned last summer amid an investigation into allegations that he abused his power and violated district policies.

Under an agreement with the board, Ray received a severance package, and the investigation was terminated without any findings being released.

MSCS began its search for a new superintendent in earnest last December, when it began soliciting applications for a search firm. 

Since then, the board hired KQ, the public-relations firm, to hold several community feedback sessions. Once most of the sessions were complete, Greene began meeting with the community advisory committee. While the group’s charter allows it to review application materials and help select finalists, Greene said Monday that she expects the search firm the board approved — Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates — to provide a selection of finalists to the board. 

When some members of the advisory committee suggested a process for community feedback on the finalists, Greene suggested that would “contaminate” the board’s selection of a superintendent.  

“You’ve asked me to serve with integrity. I’ve done that,” Greene said. “And so I’m just afraid, if after we interview the three finalists, if we start allowing people to give us their impressions, or ‘this is what I think,’ I want the board to take ownership, and to make sure that we make the best selection for the next superintendent.”

Greene reaffirmed in an email that the advisory committee would have no further formal role in selecting finalists, though it could email feedback to board members. 

Hazard Young, the search firm, received materials from the school board in February, and began advertising the job at the beginning of March. Since then, 24 people have applied for the role, and 12 are scheduled to be interviewed by Thursday, Max McGee, an official with the firm, told the community committee Monday afternoon. 

McGee has stressed to the advisory committee that the firm seeks proven examples of a candidate’s successes. 

The job posting is expected to remain open through the end of the month. 

While Tennessee law allows for public inspection of application materials for director of schools positions, it is unclear whether or when MSCS will make the applications public. Asked how the board would follow this law, Greene said in a statement that the board has not received materials from the search firm. 

“We only requested to review details regarding the top three candidates,” Greene said in an emailed statement. 

Unclear for now is whether interim superintendent Toni Williams is a candidate for the permanent job. Williams, who was the district’s chief financial officer until August, has had an active tenure in the position. She is expected to deliver a “state of the district” report Tuesday morning pointing out successes. 

When Greene nominated Williams for the position, she did so on the basis that Williams was not interested in the long-term role. Williams accepted the nomination under the same premise. 

But by the end of the year, Williams appeared to soften her stance, The Commercial Appeal reported at the time. “My focus is my day-to-day and doing the best job possible,” she said then when asked about her interest in the permanent role. “I will leave you with that.”

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

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