Memphis-Shelby County Schools board members decided Monday to keep their search for a new superintendent on pause while they try to reach consensus on what they want for the district and its next leader.
The search came to an abrupt halt after an April 15 meeting, where some board members signaled their dissatisfaction with the outside search firm that selected three finalists for the job. Board members sought to clarify future steps during a special called meeting on Monday.
The board dismissed a motion to fire the search firm, appearing instead to accept responsibility for regaining the community’s trust in the search process.
Rather than saying, “Oh well, let’s do something different,” the board should “stick our hands together … . come up with a better plan and move forward,” said board Vice Chair Sheleah Harris, who has emerged as a leading critic of the search process so far.
Members voted unanimously to reconvene at some point within two weeks for a nonvoting meeting. A key issue they’ll still have to resolve is how strictly to apply a board policy on the minimum requirements for a superintendent. The search firm that recruited candidates for the job, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, said it didn’t enforce a board policy requiring 10 years of in-school experience when it screened applicants.
Harris wants the board to adhere to that policy in its final selection, which could be a deciding factor for finalist Toni Williams, the interim superintendent, whose public school experience is in finance, not academics.
Several of the two dozen public commenters at Monday’s meeting urged the board to enforce the policy as a way of restoring transparency to the search process. Others, though, said the district could benefit from a business-minded leader like Williams who looked to others for academic direction.
Kevin Woods reiterated Monday that the board controls the policy and the process, and ought to determine what type of leader it wants, whether that’s an experienced chief financial officer or a career educator.
“I think the candidates brought forth by the search firm allow you to make that decision through your up or down vote,” Woods said. “But if the community believes that it’s important for us to review our policy and clearly articulate what that looks like, then we can do that also. But it’s OK to own that.”
But Woods cautioned the board against becoming a “de facto search firm” that would adjudicate applicants itself, and argued for keeping Hazard Young.
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Harris and board member Amber Huett-Garcia agreed that the firm did what it was asked, but said it did not act on input from all board members.
Still, Huett-Garcia said her constituents faulted the board, not the candidates, for the muddled outcome.
“It is the way that we handled it,” Huett-Garcia said. “It feels, whether that’s true or not, that we did this in the dark.”
Huett-Garcia called for new leadership in the search process, which has been led so far by board Chair Althea Greene.
In its evaluation process, Hazard Young scored candidates who met the board’s minimum requirements — which include professional academic experiences — higher than those who did not. But it did not exclude candidates who didn’t meet them, search firm president Max McGee explained in a voice call to board members during the meeting.
Williams, the interim superintendent and former district CFO, said in a statement that she was proud of the “proven track record” of her interim superintendency. While she didn’t plan to seek the permanent role, she said, she did so after board members and other community leaders supported her application.
Williams is alongside two other top contenders, both career educators: Carlton Jenkins, superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District in Wisconsin, and Angela Whitelaw, Memphis’ top academic official. Four other high-scoring candidates have withdrawn from the process.
Said Harris after the meeting: “I would encourage all current applicants, if they look at board policy as it exists right now and they know that they qualify, I would strongly encourage them to stay in the race.”
Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.