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Marie Feagins is the school board’s choice to be the next superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County Schools and the first outside leader to direct Tennessee’s largest school district since it was created through a merger a decade ago.
In a meeting Friday, school board members ended the Memphis superintendent search with a vote to select Feagins for the role. With successful contract negotiations, Feagins will join the district from her current position as chief of leadership and high schools for Detroit Public Schools Community District.
The board’s search went well into a second year and included no shortage of twists, turns, and disputes. Ultimately, the board rebooted the application process last fall and narrowed the finalist pool to three out-of-state candidates who returned to Memphis earlier this month for a final round of public interviews.
As the new superintendent, Feagins will oversee a district of 100,000 students at a pivotal time. Students have made some progress since the pandemic but have yet to totally rebound to scores that have historically lagged behind state averages. And, like other districts, Memphis is projecting a large budget gap as federal pandemic relief funds expire, leaving leaders to decide which academic programs and personnel they can afford to cut or keep. Plus, the current administration has launched a major facilities overhaul that could involve school consolidations and closures.
The new leader will also have to deal with direct challenges to local control from state leaders and lawmakers, who have stepped up the pressure on public school systems. A new proposal would specifically target Memphis by expanding the school board with additional members appointed by state officials.
Eleventh-hour letters from Rep. Mark White, the Memphis Republican who plans to sponsor the proposal, as well as from Shelby County Commission Chair Miska Clay-Bibbs, also a former school board chair, urged the Memphis board to take no action Friday.
Said MSCS board Chair Althea Greene: “While we are interested in hearing from state legislators and other elected and business leaders, the time for critical input and action has passed.”
Board member Michelle McKissack nominated Feagins as a “visionary changemaker” the district needs.
In a statement issued by the school district, Feagins said she is honored and grateful to become the next superintendent.
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“I am committed to doing whatever it takes to move us from good to phenomenal because that is what OUR city and county deserve,” Feagins said. “Together, we will defy the odds and become a national model of bold, transformational education.”
Feagins was in competition with Yolonda Brown, chief academic officer in Atlanta Public Schools and Cheryl Proctor, deputy superintendent of instruction and school communities for Portland Public Schools in Oregon. The Memphis board worked with outside search firm Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates to solicit applications.
Feagins is expected to start by July 1.
She will follow in the steps of interim Superintendent Toni Williams, whose contract allows her to retain a role with the district through the next year. Williams, the district’s former finance chief, has had an active interim tenure, negotiating plans and financing for new school buildings, embarking on a plan for all of the district’s facilities, and reorganizing the district’s procurement and finance departments.
In August 2022, Williams was the single nominee for interim leader while the board committed to a national search for a successor to former Superintendent Joris Ray, who agreed to resign from the post in a cloud of scandal.
Feagins shined for ability to endear teachers, Memphians
Tomeka Hart Wigginton, part of the Memphis school board during its last superintendent search more than a decade ago, worked with the board on the rebooted search this summer and then helped evaluate the candidates.
Feagins received resounding support from the teachers surveyed, according to feedback presented by Hart Wigginton. Of the three candidates, Feagins was also the finalist who garnered the most support from board members as an appropriate fit for the district. On that point, community members who attended the interviews ranked Feagins similarly. Of the three finalists, Feagins had the smallest gap between how the board and interview audience evaluated her fit for Memphis.
Brown and Proctor received strong feedback about their academic experiences, but constituents weren’t convinced either finalist had a strong vision specific to Memphis, according to Hart Wigginton. Feagins, however, shined for her leadership and communication style – although there were some concerns about whether she has the experience necessary to deliver.
Hart Wigginton stressed that the presentation was not scientific, but a comprehensive review of the materials collected by the interview process that was meant to help guide the board’s discussion — not make the decision for them.
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“You have three candidates with varied levels of strength. … Now you just have to be articulate and clear about what you need and which candidate matches that for you,” she said.
Each of the candidates received nominations from board members Friday, and it took board members two rounds of voting to arrive at the six required votes to select Feagins. Board members Amber Huett-Garcia and Mauricio Calvo, who cast votes for Brown, and Keith Williams, who voted only present, agreed to update their votes for Feagins in an effort to show a united front of support.
In an email to Chalkbeat Friday, Brown thanked the board and wished them success “as they continue the journey to ensure that all students ‘see the future.’” Proctor didn’t respond to Chalkbeat’s invitation for comment.
What to know about new Memphis school superintendent Marie Feagins
Feagins works in Detroit’s public school district with high school academic programming, and acts as a liaison for the district with the mayor’s office and state education department, she wrote in her application. Before coming to Detroit, she was a principal in Cleveland, and started her education career in Alabama.
“The right leader at the right place at the right time changes everything,” she told MSCS board members in December.
Feagins told board members in February that she increased the number of students who were on track to graduate in Detroit by monitoring data regularly and introducing a competition among schools.
Of managing teachers, she said: “People are okay with being responsible for the things that they can directly contribute to and own … I think that when you tell people what to do, you get robots. And when you empower them, then you get the type of creative leaders that we need in our spaces. And that’s how we get the results that we’re ultimately seeking.”
Feagins explained her approach to leading Memphis public schools like this: “I want people to get to know me first, and so that you know that the heart of the decisions are good, they’re pure, the intent is right. But you also know that I honor that the impact is what is felt most, and is what matters most ... and that’s where the leadership begins.”
Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.