Williams will stay on as MSCS interim superintendent, but won’t seek permanent role

A woman with auburn hair and a white blazer sits in front of a laptop and adjusts her microphone to speak.
Toni Williams, interim head of Memphis-Shelby County Schools, will have the chance to lead for another year, but dropped out as a candidate for superintendent. (Image Courtesy of Memphis-Shelby County Schools)

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Interim Superintendent Toni Williams won’t become the permanent leader of Memphis-Shelby County Schools after all. 

The school board voted to approve a contract extension for Williams that could keep her in charge of MSCS through the new school year. But Williams — who was one of three finalists named in April — has to give up her quest to be superintendent on a permanent basis. 

The condition is spelled out in Williams’ extended contract, which she negotiated with Memphis attorney Herman Morris, he told the board Tuesday. Her name is not expected to appear on an updated list of finalists that the board expects to receive Wednesday.

Williams’ exit from the superintendent candidate pool signals a quieter end to the district’s tortuous national superintendent search, which derailed after Williams became a finalist and the board began to fracture over the prospect of elevating another interim leader to fill the vacancy created by the departure of Joris Ray.

Ray, who was elevated from the interim position in 2019, resigned under a cloud of scandal in August 2022. His predecessor, Dorsey Hopson, had also been elevated from interim chief. 

Williams accepted the interim role in August with assurances that she wouldn’t seek the job on a permanent basis, but she changed her mind. Since then, the board has largely sidestepped discussions about that decision, never rejecting her application.

A coalition of community advocates — including some of the five people who were banned from district property after challenging the board’s stewardship of the search — had been pushing the board in recent weeks to clarify whether Williams would remain a candidate, and continued to do so in a series of coordinated public comments Tuesday evening.  

Board members Tuesday made clear their support of Williams’ interim leadership, and she received a standing ovation after board Chair Althea Greene described her accomplishments. The board’s long delay in setting the parameters of its search could keep Williams in the interim role for as much as another year. 

“I have inherited more challenges than you could ever imagine. A district in distress … . But I have not quit,” Williams said.  

Greene, who has led the search for the past year, will now be assisted by newly elected Vice Chair Joyce Dorse-Coleman. Dorse-Coleman is replacing former board member Sheleah Harris, who resigned her board seat two weeks ago. The Shelby County Commission will select Harris’ replacement in mid-July. The board will reelect leadership in the fall.

New slate of finalists due Wednesday

Meanwhile, outside search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates is poised to present the board an updated list of superintendent finalists Wednesday after reevaluating interested applicants against a revised set of qualifications approved by the board in mid-June.

The new list includes five to seven top candidates, compared with just three on the initial slate released in April, according to communication from the firm obtained by Chalkbeat. The board could choose to interview those candidates or reopen the pool to new applicants — “in essence beginning a new search,” two top Hazard Young officials wrote. That option could cost the district an additional $19,000. (The initial contract with the firm allowed for total costs between $38,000 and $70,000.) 

Reopening the search would significantly extend the hiring timeline as well. The “optimal” window to accept new applications is in the fall, the firm wrote, suggesting a timeline that culminates with the board selecting a new superintendent by the end of January. The proposed start date for the new superintendent, in that case, would be July 1, 2024. 

The firm did not propose a new timeline should the board interview and select a new superintendent from its current candidate pool. 

Hazard Young updated a proposed job description for the role, this time including minimum qualifications required by board policy that the firm did not use for evaluating candidates in the spring, as Chalkbeat reported

When she became a finalist in April, Williams did not meet the board requirements, which focused on experience as an educator, but the board later relaxed the policy

Williams could return to district role

Williams said that under her extended contract, she has the option to return to a district role after her interim tenure. Because the contract is still being finalized, Morris said, there was no copy to review Tuesday evening.

Morris, who also worked for the board to negotiate the terms of Ray’s departure, thanked Williams “for her openness and willingness to agree” during the negotiations. 

Williams will continue earning a $310,000 annualized salary and will have more vacation days under the extended contract. 

Williams told reporters she had no regrets about applying for the permanent position. 

“Regrets on serving 110,000 students?” Williams said. “Absolutely not.” 

The MSCS board will meet with the search firm at 5 p.m. on Wednesday in the basement auditorium of the Barnes Building, 160 S. Hollywood St.

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

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