Interim Memphis schools leader Toni Williams has applied to be the district’s superintendent, a role she once said she was not interested in assuming on a permanent basis.
Williams confirmed her application to Chalkbeat on Wednesday, one day after delivering an annual address about the district’s recent school year and its future. Williams used the speech to address several key constituencies and showcase the active role she has taken during her tenure as interim superintendent over the past six months, even as the district narrows its search for a new superintendent. The search began in earnest on March 1.
Williams’ application is likely to affect the dynamics of the search moving forward.
Williams, the district’s former chief financial officer, was the single nominee for the interim role in August. She took the post one week after former Superintendent Joris Ray resigned from the district with a severance package amid an investigation into allegations that he abused his power and violated district policies.
Board member Althea Greene, who has since taken on a top role in the search process as the board’s chair, nominated Williams on the basis that she had no interest in the role long term. Williams, in accepting the nomination, agreed that she intended to be an interim leader.
The same evening that she was selected, Williams announced internal reviews, and the board began preparing for a national search for its next leader.
At the time, the board’s decision was applauded by community groups who had called for a national search during the last superintendent vacancy in 2019. The board abandoned a search then in favor of hiring Ray, a longtime district insider who was serving as interim superintendent. Prior to Ray, the board also appointed Dorsey Hopson to the superintendent role. Hopson had been the attorney for the district through the merger.
This time, community members have repeatedly stressed a desire for a rigorous process to yield a leader with integrity, whether that person is local to Memphis or from out of town.
Williams, a Memphis native and graduate of Whitehaven High School, said it was the reception to her leadership so far that persuaded her to apply. Feedback on changes to the district’s operations, and on the last-minute resolution of disputes over four schools — three in Germantown and Lucy Elementary in Millington — was positive and encouraging, she told Chalkbeat in an interview Wednesday.
“That gave me the opportunity to really reflect on, ‘You know what? Why not continue? And your heart is in this work. You’re proud of this community. You’re walking down hallways where you were once a student,’” Williams said, echoing themes that Ray sounded in the past.
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Support, Williams said, has come from community leaders, legislators, and teachers.
Greene, the board chair, said that she believed Williams should be able to apply.
“She has successfully navigated several difficult and unexpected challenges as an interim, proving she’s worthy of consideration for the permanent position,” Greene said in an email sent through KQ Communications, the public-relations firm that is working with the board during the search. She noted that she was speaking for herself, and not the entire board.
Greene said earlier this week that selecting three finalists for the role will be left to Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the firm approved by the board to recruit and evaluate candidates. This national search is the first for the Memphis-Shelby County district since its formation in a merger a decade ago.
It remains to be seen whether Williams will emerge as a finalist, and one of the three potential leaders who will be publicly interviewed later in April. But the presence of an inside applicant whose interim tenure has been viewed as generally favorable could deter other candidates from continuing in the application process if they view Williams as a favorite.
Asked about this potential impact, Greene said the search firm said it is common for interims to seek the role.
“In their experience, they have not seen a mass exodus of candidates due to this dynamic,” Greene said. She said board members could ask the search firm to inform them if any applicants withdraw because of Williams’ application.
Williams joined Ray’s cabinet as CFO in 2019. Locally, Williams has held prior positions with the Memphis district, plus Millington Municipal Schools and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
As CFO, she said, she was focused on resource allocation, with power to control the departments assigned to her rather than make change districtwide.
Being elevated to interim superintendent has empowered her to demand more accountability, Williams said.
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“I feel that people are actually feeling it and understanding that, ‘Hey, wow, you know, it’s not status quo anymore,’” Williams said.
In the last six months, she has visited schools, and in the new year, as she was considering applying for the superintendent job, she restarted a teacher advisory group that met as the district’s two teacher unions were in week-long negotiations over compensation and benefits. She said she learned a lot from the advisory group about what it’s like to be in the classroom, a first-hand experience she doesn’t have.
Williams said she hasn’t thought much about what she’ll do if she isn’t selected as the permanent leader. Her contract allows her to stay on as CFO or a consultant if it is terminated before August, which is several months after the board plans to have a superintendent in place.
“Our community has so many opportunities to address the unique needs of our students, the unique needs of our community,” Williams said. “So for me, if not selected, I know that I will continue to be deep in the work as a Memphian.”