Memphis school district’s superintendent search: Here’s the latest on the applicants

A collage of three portraits show a man and two women in suit jackets, looking and smiling at the camera.
The three remaining top contenders for Memphis’ new schools superintendent are Carlton Jenkins, superintendent in Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin; Angela Whitelaw, Memphis’ top academics official; and Toni Williams, Memphis’ interim superintendent. (Courtesy Madison Metropolitan School District (left), Memphis-Shelby County Schools (center, right))

The search for Memphis’ next school superintendent attracted several Memphis-area educators as well as current and former district leaders from across the country, a Chalkbeat Tennessee review of candidates found. But several of the leading contenders have dropped out. And one applicant who withdrew has asked to be reconsidered.

Outside search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates released a near-complete list of applicants last week at the behest of board members, many of whom were dissatisfied with the selection process and the initial finalist slate the firm presented at an April 15 meeting. Board Chair Althea Greene paused the search after that meeting, derailing the monthslong quest for a successor to former Superintendent Joris Ray.

Board members will determine the next step during an upcoming nonvoting meeting. Greene, who had been leading the search, passed the torch to board members Stephanie Love and Joyce Dorse-Coleman after board member Amber Huett-Garcia called for a leadership change. 

Among the candidates who have withdrawn from consideration are Brenda Cassellius, who was one of three initial finalists, and Keith Miles Jr., a proposed addition to the finalist slate who accepted another job. According to Max McGee, president of Hazard Young, only three of the seven people whom the firm considered top contenders were still pursuing the job a few days after the firm presented finalists. 

But since then, one applicant, Marie Feagins, has asked to be reconsidered, according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat. The firm called her a “high scoring candidate” in an email to board members. But it is unclear if Feagins is part of the expanded top candidate slate, or if she will be added to the finalist pool. Her application materials indicate she was among the top 12. (Read more about her below.)

“At this point, the board has not decided to expand the pool and allow additional candidates. That will be part of the discussion at the upcoming board retreat,” Love said in a statement through KQ Communications, which has assisted the board throughout the search.

The board could decide to expand its candidate pool beyond the remaining top contenders and offer interviews to lower-scoring applicants. It is also poised to decide whether interim Superintendent Toni Williams, whose background is in finance, is qualified for the role. (The search firm did not screen candidates against the board’s minimum requirements.)

Hazard Young publicly released a list of names — without resumes — for the remaining candidates. Other than the top contenders, it is unclear how these applicants scored. The district received applications from 34 people; 21 met the basic criteria, and 12 made the final round of interviews.

Here’s a look at what Chalkbeat has learned about the leading contenders, the ones who withdrew their names, and others who are still pursuing the job. Candidates in each category are listed in alphabetical order.

Who are the remaining top applicants for Memphis superintendent?

Carlton Jenkins announced plans to retire as superintendent of Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District in February. He assumed the role in August 2020 after a career in education that the Wisconsin State Journal wrote included a superintendency in suburban Minneapolis. In Madison, Jenkins was the district’s first Black superintendent, according to Lake Geneva Regional News, and has been the president of the African American Superintendents Association.

Jenkins is one of the initial three finalists whom Hazard Young presented to the MSCS board.

Angela Whitelaw is a longtime educator and administrator in the Memphis school district who was one of two acting superintendents for a month and a half this summer. She has since returned to her post as deputy superintendent overseeing academics. Whitelaw has held the role since February 2019, when she was one of Ray’s first two appointees to his cabinet. She was previously the chief of schools.

The search firm recommended that the MSCS board add Whitelaw to the finalist pool.

Toni Williams became the interim superintendent of MSCS last August on the premise that she was not interested in the role permanently. She then changed her position and applied for the job last month. She has enjoyed support from community and board members alike as she focused on accountability measures during her interim tenure. She has nearly a decade of experience in public education focused on finance, but not academics.

Williams is one of the initial three finalists whom Hazard Young presented to the MSCS board. 

Who are the leading contenders for Memphis superintendent who withdrew?

Brenda Cassellius was recently 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.”

Cassellius, who was also a recent superintendent finalist for a suburban Minneapolis school district, dropped out of the Memphis search after her announcement as a finalist, citing the board’s discussion and suspension of the search on April 15. She has since accepted a non-profit sector job.

Keith Miles Jr., superintendent of Bridgeton Public Schools in New Jersey, has been a school and district administrator in several districts in the northeastern United States, according to his current biography.  

The search firm recommended on April 18 that the MSCS board add Miles to the finalist pool. The next day, the firm told board members Miles accepted an offer for the new job, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster in Pennsylvania.

Who else applied for the role?

Morcease Beasley is set to step down as superintendent of Metro Atlanta’s Clayton County Schools at the end of the school year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported last fall. Beasley was elevated to the role from an internal position in 2017, the newspaper previously reported, after administrative roles at Metro Atlanta’s DeKalb County School district.

Tonya Biles was, in 2011, a top education administrator at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, a local charter school.   

Stephen Bournes is the top academic administrator for Chester Community Charter School in a town near Philadelphia. According to his biography, he was a top administrator of a suburban Chicago school before that and has 25 years of academic experience.

Lee Buddy, according to his LinkedIn profile, is a top administrator in Cleveland’s school district. He was elevated to the role in 2021 after several years as a teacher and school administrator in various districts.  

Vallerie Cave has been the superintendent of schools in Colleton County, South Carolina, near Charleston, since 2021. In February, board members considered terminating her contract, according to local news reports. Before this, she was an education administrator in Savannah, Georgia, and her resume includes additional experience, mostly in the South.

Marie Feagins is a top academics official in Detroit’s public school district where she has overseen district leadership and high schools since 2021, according to application materials obtained by Chalkbeat. Before that, she was a principal and administrator in Cleveland and in Huntsville, Alabama. Her early career included counseling and teaching in Alabama schools in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa. She was recently among six applicants interviewed for the superintendency in Fayetteville, Arkansas, according to news reports

Cynthia Gentry is a longtime education administrator who has sought top Memphis leadership positions before, including the Memphis superintendency in 2003, The Commercial Appeal archives show. Gentry narrowly lost a bid for an at-large Memphis school board seat in 2008, receiving more than 80,000 votes, the newspaper reported.

Cedrick Gray, now an education leadership consultant, was the first education liaison for Shelby County. He was among the finalists for Tennessee’s turnaround superintendent, and has been a superintendent twice before. At Jackson Public Schools, Mississippi’s largest district, he was named national superintendent of the year before resigning.

Alexis Gwin-Miller is listed as the executive director of Memphis’ Power Center Community Development Corp. and was, for a short time, principal of Crosstown High School, a local charter school. Power Center CDC is an urban development group linked to Gestalt Community Schools, a charter operator of several schools in Memphis. 

Vincent Hunter is the longtime principal of MSCS’ Whitehaven High School, where seniors score millions of dollars in college scholarships, and recent leader of the neighborhood-based school turnaround program. Hunter enjoys support from both the Whitehaven neighborhood and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee

Alisha Kiner rose to her position as an MSCS district leader after a decadelong tenure at Booker T. Washington High School. The school’s graduation rates rose dramatically during her tenure, prompting then-President Barack Obama to visit the school to deliver its 2011 commencement address.

Derrick Jones Lopez is an education administrator in Detroit’s school district focused on high schools, according to his LinkedIn profile. Lopez was fired without cause from his position as superintendent of schools in Flint, Michigan. A subsequent settlement agreement voided a disciplinary memo alleging poor performance, MLive news reported

Roderick Richmond is a longtime, high-ranking MSCS academics administrator who has been a finalist for superintendent for Tennessee’s Nashville and Jackson school districts. Within the district, Richmond was an architect of the iZone, Memphis’ school turnaround program.

Terry Ross is a former Memphis principal who was reassigned to a district-level academic adviser position after an investigation into alleged harassment and improper grade changing. According to his online resume, Ross also works with a group supporting teacher retention.

Art Stellar was named vice president of the National Education Foundation in 2013 after a career as an educator and administrator, including tenures as superintendent. Test scores improved under Stellar’s leadership at a Massachusetts school district, the Taunton Daily Gazette reported, but disagreements with teachers led to his dismissal there and later from a North Carolina district.

Bernard Taylor is an education administrator in Pittsburgh, documents show. Taylor returned to the district as a principal in 2017 after a tumultuous tenure as superintendent of East Baton Rouge Parish schools in Louisiana, but was later suspended over abuse claims. He was a superintendent twice before, according to his biography.  

Reginald R. Williams is the principal at MSCS’ Overton High School. He has been a Memphis school administrator for decades. Prior to his Overton tenure, Williams was the principal at Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, where his firing over test scores was the first public challenge to a law aimed at protecting certain school personnel from such actions. 

Antwan Wilson was the top education official for Oakland, California, and Washington, D.C., schools between 2014 and 2018 after nearly a decade climbing the ranks in Denver public schools. He resigned from his Washington post after side-stepping a school lottery process for his child, and months after The Washington Post reported Wilson left Oakland schools in financial disrepair. He has since become an education consultant.  

Five other applicants were on the list Hazard Young provided: Donald Boyd, Eric Henderson, Tameka Henderson, Anson Smith, and Darrell Williams. Chalkbeat was unable to confirm their identities and professional backgrounds.

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

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