Memphis school board members disagree on how to pick next superintendent, decision on search firm delayed

The Shelby County Schools board delayed picking a national firm to find a superintendent candidate Monday after three members said they would rather stick with the interim leader currently running the district.

Stephanie Love, who initially nominated career Memphis educator Joris Ray to lead the district in December, said Ray has already proved himself worthy of the permanent role. Billy Orgel said the board “already made the right choice” with Ray. Althea Greene, the newest board member appointed in February, said a national search is not needed.

“He’s doing the job. He’s familiar with the district. He’s familiar with what we need to go forward,” said Greene. “I believe we have what we need right here in Memphis. We need to look in our own backyard and not shop around.”

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Board members are expected to vote on suspending the search at their regular meeting later this month. If that resolution fails, the board Monday recommended Ray & Associates to conduct the search for about $44,000. The Iowa-based firm is the same one the former Memphis City Schools used to hire Kriner Cash in 2008. The only other search firm that applied for the job was Nebraska-based McPherson and Jacobson, the district’s chief of staff, John Barker, said.

The delay comes less than three months after Ray, who has not been shy about his desire for the job, began his interim role with Tennessee’s largest district. It also signals a rare divide among board members on how to fill the position, which could stall the search.

Three board members, Scott McCormick, Miska Clay Bibbs, and Kevin Woods, did not take sides on the issue. The remaining three, Joyce Dorse Coleman, Shante Avant, and Michelle Robinson McKissack, said conducting a national search is the board performing its “due diligence.”

Shante Avant, board chairwoman, at Central High School last year. (Caroline Bauman)

“The conversation began for us to even go down this path because we’ve not done a national search in 10 years,” said board chairwoman Avant. “And although I wholeheartedly support what Dr. Ray has done in the time of his tenure, I don’t think us doing a national search negates any of the hard work he has put in.”

Orgel disagreed, saying launching a national search would signal a “lack of confidence” in Ray and his team.

“I think we need to support him and not send a message to the community that ‘Well, he’s OK, but he’s not good enough.’ We should let him prove himself out,” Orgel said.

Some advocates present at the board’s committee meeting Monday said suspending a national search would send a message to the community that members are more interested in personalities than process.

“It’s only been three months. And what we all know is there is this honeymoon period where things are great,” said Mendell Grinter, the executive director of student advocacy organization Campaign for School Equity. “But six months from now, a year from now, is the board going to be having the same conversation?”

Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, a parent advocacy organization, said suspending the search would cheat community members from having a say in the process because search firms often hold meetings to gather input. As soon as Love suggested the board suspend the search, Carpenter said she could feel tears of anger in her eyes.

“It seems like to the community that you don’t value their opinion already. I think it would build so much trust in the community” to do a national search, she said.

The district’s former superintendent, Dorsey Hopson, left the district in January to work for health insurance giant, Cigna. School board members briefly considered allowing the Memphis Education Fund to pay for the search firm. But the board ultimately rejected the offer citing the appearance of bias.