Interim MSCS leader outlines her vision for district as superintendent search narrows

A woman in a gray suit holds a microphone and stands on a school auditorium stage.
Toni Williams, interim superintendent of Memphis-Shelby Country Schools, used an annual state-of-the-district address Tuesday to review the results of her six months leading the district and to outline a vision for the future of the district. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

In a speech reflecting on the recent school year and teasing budget priorities for the coming one, interim Memphis schools leader Toni Williams described a district on the rise, with big decisions ahead about improving facilities, literacy and safety. 

Williams also implicitly made her case to be considered a candidate in the search for Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ next superintendent, a position she once said she had no interest in assuming on a permanent basis. 

The school board, working with a national search firm, has been soliciting applicants for that post since March 1, and is in the process of narrowing its list of candidates to a small group of finalists. The search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, will interview 12 candidates by Thursday afternoon and is expected to deliver a slate of three finalists to the school board in April. Finalists will be interviewed publicly on April 21 and 22.

Williams used the annual state-of-the-district address Tuesday to review the results of her six months leading the district, following the departure of Superintendent Joris Ray, and to outline a vision for the future of the district. 

In the months after she was appointed, Williams appeared to soften her stance against seeking the permanent job. After her address today, she demurred when Chalkbeat asked whether she had applied or been interviewed for the role. 

“I don’t want today to be about me,” Williams said. “I want to just stay focused on, you know, really today’s message.”

She added: “But there will be other opportunities to answer that question.”

Williams’ theme for the address was “triumphant together,” a nod to the district’s calls for community members to help remove the often poverty-related barriers Memphis students and families face outside school. Rather than “Reimagining 901,” a tagline Ray used to describe a facilities and academics plan, Williams spoke of “transforming the 901.” 

“What transforming the 901 is about is a long term, thoughtful, shared vision for rebuilding this community, including wraparound services, community schools, expanding pre-K and after-school programs … . It has to be a community effort,” Williams said.

Williams’ speech at the district’s Teaching and Learning Academy auditorium had the feel of an elevated school assembly, unlike the more lavish hotel ballroom addresses of Ray’s tenure. The house lights stayed on, and attendees went home with stationery sets featuring student artwork.

The setting was meant to show that the district could be a “good steward of the resources that we already have,” Cathryn Stout, the district’s chief of communications, explained during a preview of the address.

Williams spent much of the 90-minute address explaining district plans for issues of interest to key constituencies in the district, in the business community and among Shelby County and City of Memphis leadership. (You can watch the full address online here.

For teachers, the district plans to invest $27 million in teacher pay, a move that will bump up starting salaries. 

Williams confirmed a new 10-year facilities plan. The district released a plan two years ago, but Williams had told the Shelby County Commission, which funds capital projects for the district, that the district would provide a new plan when requesting funds for a new Cordova high school

She touted new state investments into district career and technical education that would appeal to the business community. 

To improve attendance rates, Williams said, the district has upgraded communication to families about student absences. That includes referrals to community resources. The steps follow a rise in tensions between the district and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, who in the fall claimed concerning crime rates were linked to low school attendance

With a few months to go in the current fiscal year, district officials still have to prepare and present a budget for next year, which will be the first time the district sees a boost of recurring funds through a new state funding formula, called Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement, or TISA. The funds could ease the transition out of programs funded by one-time federal pandemic funds, but the district will have to assess which programs remain.

An ongoing review of academic programming funded by the millions of dollars in federal aid will help inform which programming makes the cut. Tuesday, Williams pointed to $30 million annually toward “specialized education assistants” in lower elementary grade classrooms and $42 million annually toward reading and math tutoring as successful programming funded by the federal cash influx.

Williams also said the district is looking to scale a piloted school safety program across all district middle and high schools at a cost of $50 million. The technology, according to a video played during Tuesday’s program, sounds alarms at school entrances that aren’t designated for student or staff use. Improvements also would speed up student weapon searches at the start of the school day. 

Williams also announced the finalists for the teacher, principal and supervisor of the year:

Supervisor of the year finalists: 

  • Brian Ingram, Human Resources
  • Sunya Payne, Student, Family and Community Engagement
  • Reggie Jackson, School Operations 

Principal of the year finalists:

  • Keyundah Coleman, John P. Freeman Optional School
  • Renee Meeks, Sea Isle Elementary School
  • James Suggs, G.W. Carver High School 

Teacher of the year finalists: 

  • Thomas Denson, White Station Elementary School
  • Tishsha Hopson, Hickory Ridge Middle School
  • Ollie Liddell, Central High School

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

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