MSCS superintendent search firm isn’t enforcing board’s policy on minimum job requirements

Woman in a suit at a podium, facing toward the camera, flanked by two other women.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools interim Superintendent Toni Williams, a candidate for the permanent job, appears with school board members after a speech in March. The firm leading the search for the next superintendent said it’s not applying a board policy on work experience in screening candidates. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

A national superintendent search that officials promised would restore trust in the embattled Memphis-Shelby County Schools district could yield finalists who don’t meet the board’s own minimum requirements for the role.  

The board’s policy, last revised in 2012, says candidates for the position of superintendent must have at least 10 years of experience in teaching or school administration.

Yet the company that’s overseeing the district’s national search, and determining the short list of finalists for the board to consider, is not applying that standard in screening applicants, the firm’s president, Max McGee, told Chalkbeat on Wednesday.

That doesn’t mean the finalists, or the board’s eventual choice for superintendent, won’t have the requisite school experience. But the disconnect does raise questions about why the search firm — Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Schaumburg, Illinois — isn’t honoring the board’s requirement, or what the board communicated to the firm about its policy. 

The superintendent is the only district employee who is hired directly by the board.

Board members were reminded of the required qualifications for the superintendent a week ago by Venita Doggett, director of advocacy for the Memphis Education Fund, according to emails obtained by Chalkbeat. Doggett is part of a community advisory committee for the search that pressed for more involvement and the chance to present recommendations to the board about its selection.

“It’s my hope that the board will adhere to its policy as a way to re-establish community trust in the process,” Doggett wrote, attaching the text of the board’s policy on minimum qualifications.

In a statement to Chalkbeat through KQ Communications, the public-relations firm working with the district during the search, school board Chair Althea Greene said she is “committed to a search process that follows applicable law and policies.”

Board member Michelle McKissack said she was assured the board is following policy. Board members Kevin Woods and Sheleah Harris said they would be able to comment Saturday, once the board announces finalists in its 10 a.m. work session.

Board member Amber Huett-Garcia said she had no reason to believe that the board has violated its policy or that it won’t follow it as the search continues.

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Four other board members did not respond to Chalkbeat’s requests for comment. 

Trust, academics central to search from the start

The position came open in August 2022, when then-Superintendent Joris Ray resigned amid an external investigation into allegations that he abused his power and violated district policies. As part of its agreement with Ray, the board halted the investigation without releasing any findings, a process that roiled community members and left them calling for a rigorous national search for Ray’s successor, as opposed to the internal appointment that had elevated him to the job in 2019. 

At town halls about the search, attendees repeatedly called for a superintendent with “integrity,” and community advocates and business leaders alike have stressed the need for a trustworthy selection process as well. Greene acknowledged this early in the search, telling Chalkbeat in November that trust in district leadership and progress in academics — which both suffered during the pandemic — were among the top priorities for the next superintendent.

But fresh doubts have crept in. When the board selected Toni Williams, then chief financial officer, as interim superintendent, it was on the condition that she was not interested in taking the role permanently. She has since changed her position and applied for the job. She has enjoyed support from community and board members alike as she focused on accountability measures. But for some, her turnabout on applying for the job — and apparent support for her decision from Greene, the board chair — has sown distrust in the search process.

It is unclear whether Williams meets the requirements under the board’s policy on experience. Her self-reported work experience on LinkedIn shows eight years of experience in public education, which was all in finance, before she took on the interim superintendent post. The only other candidate who has publicly indicated interest in the position is Vincent Hunter, who has reportedly been the principal at Whitehaven High School for more than 10 years. The other candidates have not been publicly identified.

Natalie McKinney, who was the policy director for the school district during the merger a decade ago that created Memphis-Shelby County Schools, said the community missed out on the chance to set an example at that time when it decided not to do a national search for a superintendent.

“This is a pivotal point where rubber hits the road,” McKinney told Chalkbeat in a recent interview, referring to the current search. “And if this does not get more transparent and in line with policy, then I think there’s going to be a serious divide between the community and the board.”

Greene once supported changes in experience requirement

The board appears to have the power to adjust its policy on the minimum requirements by substituting “board approved equivalents.”

Greene has supported changes, calling some of the policies “outdated,” including the 10-year experience qualification, The Commercial Appeal reported last fall. But none of the policies were changed, and the board never approved alternatives.

“If we want to put the best superintendent in front of our students, we cannot rush the process, but we must follow policy,” the Memphis newspaper quoted her telling board members.

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Chalkbeat has asked both Memphis-Shelby County Schools and Hazard Young, the search firm, for application materials for every person who applied, which would include details about the extent of their experience. Tennessee open-records law requires that those documents be made available to the public for the district superintendent position, according to both Deborah Fisher at the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and Paul McAdoo, an attorney in Tennessee with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

McAdoo pointed out Tennessee’s attorney general also weighed in on the issue in 2016, writing: “Any records obtained by a third party in conjunction with an employment search for a director of schools for a school board are public records and subject to inspection.” 

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

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