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Update, June 14, 2023: This story was updated to include additional comments from county officials and Sheleah Harris about her resignation from the school board.
The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board relaxed its minimum requirements for the district’s superintendent role, allowing interim Superintendent Toni Williams to remain a candidate for the permanent leadership job, even though she lacks classroom experience.
But despite months of discussions aimed at forging consensus about what they want in a leader and how to proceed with the search, board members nearly put off making a decision on the policy, and ultimately fell short of presenting a united front.
Eight of the board members voted for the change in the job requirements. The ninth, Vice Chair Sheleah Harris, abstained from the vote and denounced the board’s decision. Then she announced she would quit her elected seat.
Before the amendments approved Tuesday, board policy required candidates to have a certain amount of in-school experience and training in education. Under the new requirements, the board could consider a candidate who has 10 years of work experience and advanced degrees in any of several fields, rather than just education. Board member Amber Huett-Garcia suggested the updates to the existing policies.
Board members also voted to reopen the application for the superintendent role, hoping to attract more candidates. Those who apply will have to meet the updated requirements, plus a revised set of desired qualifications the board also approved.
The decisions Tuesday reactivate a search that has been suspended for nearly two months, as board members tried to resolve differences and misunderstandings about the search process.
“We’ve been hanging this over the heads of the public for far too long,” board member Frank Johnson said of the policy vote.
Williams’ qualifications became a sticking point
The board policy on minimum requirements emerged as a sticking point just as the search was set to narrow to three finalists. Search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates told Chalkbeat it did not apply the board’s requirements for in-school experience when evaluating applicants, allowing Williams, whose background is in finance, to appear among three finalists.
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Some board and community members, including Harris, raised concerns about the disconnect, putting a spotlight on perceived lapses in the board’s stewardship of the search. Board members have spent the past two months reexamining those lapses and seeking closer alignment on their priorities in the search.
But they couldn’t reach a unanimous decision. Harris consistently opposed relaxing the minimum requirements, right up to Tuesday’s vote.
Harris made her decision to resign “months ago,” she wrote in a private Facebook post obtained by Chalkbeat.
It was not a “sudden, emotional decision because of a dysfunctional super search or a heated disagreement,” she wrote in the post.
Harris did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Early Wednesday, board Chair Althea Greene notified other county officials of Harris’ resignation. In a statement to Chalkbeat, Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips said the Shelby County Commission will have to make an appointment to fill Harris’ seat for District 5, which includes Cordova.
Board agrees on new set of qualifications
This is the first time the merged Memphis-Shelby County district has conducted a search since it was formed a decade ago, and the first time since 2008 that Memphis has sought to choose a superintendent through a search rather than internal appointment.
The board is expected to share their new guidelines for the search with Hazard Young, which then could advise the board on a new timeline. The additional qualifications the board agreed upon include:
- Strategic leadership on budget and finance
- Governance and board leadership
- Community advocate
- Courageous decision maker
- Politically savvy
- Attract, retain, and build capacity of a strong team
- Ability to positively impact culture and climate
- Dynamic, visionary, adaptive leader
- Proven track record of success
- Effective change management
- Strong academic visionary
Tomeka Hart Wigginton, a former board member who has facilitated board discussions about the search, has suggested that by the end of the month, the board create plans for implementing and communicating the changes and continuing community engagement.
Speaking with media after Tuesday’s meeting, Greene said the board should meet with a Hazard Young representative in person to discuss the timeline. But the timeline won’t affect a planned vote for next Tuesday on possible amendments to Williams’ interim superintendent contract, which expires in August.
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“We know that we have to have someone to continue to lead us until we get a permanent superintendent … . So if it is the will of this board for interim superintendent to continue to lead us, that’s a vote that we will make next week,” Greene said.
The board has yet to complete a required evaluation of Williams’ leadership, which was due May 1.
Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.