Announced finalist for Memphis schools superintendent withdraws from search

The logo of the Memphis Shelby County Schools district
A finalist for Memphis schools superintendent has withdrawn. Brenda Cassellius was one of three finalists announced Saturday. (Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat)

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One of the three Memphis schools superintendent finalists announced by an outside search firm has withdrawn. Brenda Cassellius, recently the superintendent of Boston Public Schools, was announced as a finalist during a Saturday meeting that school board members derailed with questions and criticisms about the search process and results. 

After the meeting adjourned, the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board said it was postponing plans to interview the finalists until the board members received the names of all 34 applicants. 

In response, the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates gave applicants a Monday afternoon deadline to stay in the search or withdraw, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat.

The firm informed board members of Cassellius’ resignation Tuesday, board member Amber Huett-Garcia told Chalkbeat.

In an email to the search firm, Cassellius said she was withdrawing because of the pause in the process. She thanked the search firm for its work and wished the board well in finding a new superintendent.  

Chalkbeat was unable to reach Cassellius Tuesday afternoon. 

The other two announced finalists are Carlton Jenkins, superintendent of Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District, and Toni Williams, who became the interim superintendent of MSCS under the premise she wasn’t interested in the role permanently. She changed her mind and applied for the job last month.

It is unclear how the search will proceed, but the board may seek more finalists, Huett-Garcia said Tuesday afternoon. 

The board has a regularly scheduled work session Tuesday evening. 

Saturday’s meeting was the first board deliberation about the search since it hired the search firm in February. Typically a united front publicly, MSCS board members are fractured about the search, both in process and results from Hazard Young.

The stakes are high for the district, where priorities for an incoming leader will be improving academic outcomes for Memphis’ 100,000 students and restoring trust in the community after former Superintendent Joris Ray’s rocky departure

Cassellius was the superintendent at Boston Public Schools for three years, and was the statewide education commissioner in Minnesota for almost a decade before that. Cassellius wanted to stay longer in the Boston leadership position, The Boston Globe reported, but left the job last summer. Her departure was announced as a mutual decision, but Cassellius told the Globe that recently elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu “should be able to pick her own team.”

Since then, she’s worked as a leadership consultant. In February, she was among five finalists for the superintendent of schools in Osseo, a suburb of Minneapolis, Star Tribune reported.  

In Boston, Cassellius diversified the district’s exam schools, which require tests for admissions, the Globe reported. But during her tenure, which ran the length of the pandemic, she faced criticism from teachers, principals, and the teachers union.

Cassellius has ties to Memphis: She received her doctorate in education from the University of Memphis in 2007, according to a resume published by Boston Public Schools, and was an academic leader for Memphis City Schools’ middle schools from 2004 to 2007.

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

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