Memphis school board scrambling to get superintendent search back on track

Eleven people sit around the dais in front of a projector surrounded on either side by navy curtains.
Memphis-Shelby County Schools board members reassessed the status of the district’s superintendent search and what decisions it needs to make to proceed. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

Update, April 19, 10:43 a.m.: One of two announced top contenders for the Memphis superintendent role has withdrawn. Keith Miles Jr., superintendent of Bridgeton Public Schools in New Jersey, is expected to become the superintendent of the School District of Lancaster in Pennsylvania.

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board will vote next week on how to proceed in choosing a superintendent after its nationwide search was derailed Saturday when board members raised questions about an outside search firm’s recommendation of three finalists.

Board chair Althea Greene, who has been leading the search over the last six months, said she paused the search because “it was very clear last Saturday that we were not ready to move on.”

The board needs to decide how many finalists will be interviewed and whether interim superintendent Toni Williams is qualified to fill the role permanently. It is possible  — though unlikely — that the board will suspend the search and restart the process.

Deliberations by board members Saturday and in Tuesday’s meeting have been the first since the Memphis board hired its outside search firm in February. The board’s concerns about the slate of finalists and lack of transparency also led to public complaints — a situation Greene sought to avoid

Board member Amber Huett-Garcia pushed fellow board members to continue having public conversations about next steps, rather than limiting themselves to the individual conversations that seemed to leave the board at odds with each other and the search firm on Saturday.

The Saturday decision to halt the process led at least one candidate — Brenda Cassellius, whom the search firm recommended as a finalist for the role — to withdraw. Seven other candidates have also withdrawn. 

The pressure is on the board to regain community trust and hire a leader who can improve academic outcomes for the district’s 100,000 students.

Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the outside firm leading the search, recommended that the board consider two more contenders Tuesday: Angela Whitelaw, the Memphis district’s deputy superintendent of academics, and Keith Miles Jr., the current superintendent of Bridgeton Public Schools in New Jersey. Miles is also a finalist for the superintendent role for Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s school district, Lancaster Online reported.

Some board members still question qualifications policy

Tuesday evening, board members focused their debate on policy revisions and the way candidates were evaluated, with some advocating for continued community involvement in the remainder of the search. There was little discussion Tuesday of restarting the process completely. 

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Board member Sheleah Harris reiterated that Hazard Young did not screen candidates against the board’s policy for minimum qualifications, and it is unclear if Williams, who has  a background in finance instead of academics, meets them. Community members, including those on a search advisory committee, have raised the same concerns. Harris also said it wouldn’t be fair for the board to change the policy after the search process has already started.

Huett-Garcia also asked about Williams’ qualifications, and district lawyer Kenneth Walker told board members he was not prepared to discuss it. Williams, who initially said she wasn’t interested in the position long-term, sought a legal opinion on the policy, Hazard Young told board members Saturday. 

Board member Kevin Woods said the board should welcome ongoing public scrutiny as it discusses next steps. Ultimately, he said, the board itself can decide to keep the policy, change it, or suspend it. 

In an effort to re-establish trust, Huett-Garcia sought answers from the search firm to questions from the community. One of those questions was whether the firm was directed to include specific people into the top three or dozens spots.

“The three candidates that you saw on Saturday were our top applicants. So I want you all to rest assured that … they followed the rubric across the board with fidelity,” Huett-Garcia said. 

Hazard Young suggested the board interview any candidates of its choice along with the top four candidates now before the board.

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

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