Memphis school board poised to widen superintendent search; 3 activists barred from meeting

people sit around tables in a meeting in front of screens
Memphis-Shelby County Schools board members signaled at a meeting Friday that they favored reopening their search for a new superintendent to consider more candidates under revised criteria. (Laura Testino / Chalkbeat)

A majority of Memphis-Shelby County Schools board members signaled Friday that they want to reopen the search for a new superintendent, consider more candidates and use a different set of criteria to evaluate them.

The board consensus, based on an informal vote, emerged from a meeting that was aimed at restoring community trust in a search that stalled last month, when the board fractured over the initial slate of finalists and the process that produced them.

But rebuilding trust could be difficult after police and district security officers barred at least three prominent activists from the meeting, citing a threat to public safety and “disruptive behavior.”

“It’s very discouraging,” said Rachael Spriggs, a former school board candidate and former district employee. Spriggs, who was part of a coalition calling for transparency and integrity in the search process, was one of the activists who received notice that they would face arrest if they appeared on MSCS property.

Discord between the board and community advocates has persisted throughout the search for a successor to Joris Ray, who resigned as superintendent in August 2022 under a cloud of scandal. Some activists complain that the search has been conducted without enough community input or accountability. 

The board, too, has been sharply divided over how to proceed since the search was halted abruptly on April 15. At Friday’s meeting, board members articulated what they wanted out of the process and the new superintendent, a discussion they acknowledged should have happened months ago. And they heard guidance from experts on how a search should occur under district policy.  

They expect to reconvene in a set of meetings that will be announced next week. 

“I want to commend you for recognizing that you needed the time together today,” Tomeka Hart Wigginton, a former Memphis school board member who facilitated the discussion, told the board.

Memphis activist LJ Abraham photographed a form barring her from all Memphis-Shelby County Schools property. (Courtesy LJ Abraham)

It is unclear who authorized the bans on the three activists. Three board members told Chalkbeat they were unaware of the bans. Board Chair Althea Greene declined to comment as she exited the meeting Friday. MSCS declined to say whether the interim superintendent, Toni Williams, authorized them.

Memphis police officers and top MSCS security officials ushered the three out of the auditorium Friday afternoon. Authorities gave them forms to sign acknowledging that they were banned from all district locations. They did not receive copies of the forms.

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Activists told Chalkbeat they expected more information about why they had been banned.

The conflict with Spriggs first flared during a special called meeting Tuesday, when the board met to approve its budget and discuss the superintendent search. 

When Spriggs questioned whether Williams had board member support to apply for the permanent superintendent role — something Williams said she wouldn’t do when she became interim leader — Greene silenced her, citing a board policy that restricts commenters at board meetings from mentioning school district employees by name. 

When board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman told attendees that the superintendent search would remain paused, several activists got up and left the room. At that moment, as the crowd dispersed, some devices on the ground began emitting a loud noise, similar to a fire alarm. 

The district said in a statement to Chalkbeat: “Multiple people were banned for threats to public safety, including repeated disruptive behavior and activating panic alarms.”

The banned activists — Spriggs, former teacher union president Tikeila Rucker, and community activist LJ Abraham — said they had not received any warning from the district or board members after they appeared for public comment at the Tuesday board meeting. It is unclear whether other people face bans. 

Abraham captured a photo of her form, which says that police can arrest her on the school district’s behalf if she visits any board office or school location. The form is signed by Carolyn Jackson, the chief security officer for MSCS. 

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

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