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Interim superintendent Joris Ray leading his first Shelby County Schools board meeting.

Interim superintendent Joris Ray leading his first Shelby County Schools board meeting.

Unproven claims of sexual harassment against Joris Ray won’t halt superintendent vote, board members say

Most school board members are satisfied with an investigation into anonymous sexual harassment claims against interim superintendent Joris Ray that found “no evidence” of wrongdoing — and say it won’t affect their upcoming vote on whether to hire him.

“I don’t let stuff like that affect my decisions until it becomes substantial and proven to be true,” said board member Althea Greene, who supports an expected resolution that, if approved, would end a national search for Shelby County Schools’ next leader and offer Ray the position.

“If we spend our time focused on anonymous emails the district would have no time to educate children,” said board member Stephanie Love, who is drafting the resolution. “That doesn’t mean people who have challenges should not report them. What I’m saying is, it’s kinda hard for the district to investigate when they have no one to talk to to find more information.”

Ray has expressed interest in the permanent position since the December evening he was first appointed interim. Board members plan to vote April 30 on hiring him or continuing a national search, and need six votes to appoint him, according to board policy. Several principals and teachers expressed their support publicly when board members voted on his 18-month contract. But advocates and others have said that without a vetting process that includes inviting others to apply, the school board won’t know if he is the best candidate.

According to the district, an anonymous letter was mailed Sept. 20 to the district’s legal office accusing Ray of “inappropriate sexual harassment and misconduct.” Ray had recently been promoted to chief of academic operations.

It was October when Shelby County Schools received a final report from law firm Glanker Brown on attempts to identify the letter writer. But the district’s legal team said it didn’t officially close the investigation until Thursday to give the writer time to come forward.

Some board members said the firm’s findings in October were enough to clear Ray of wrongdoing.

“Now because you have an African-American man who is charged with improving academics in the largest district in Tennessee, now he’s being attacked and they are trying to slander him,” Love said. “That’s why the report was released, so everyone can see you’re not hiding anything.”

Shelby County Schools board members Miska Clay Bibbs, left, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman.

Shelby County Schools board members Miska Clay Bibbs, left, and Joyce Dorse-Coleman.

Caroline Bauman

Board member Joyce Dorse-Coleman said there was nothing in the investigation publicly released Thursday that board members didn’t already know.

“It shouldn’t impact [the superintendent hiring decision] at all because nothing was found to be true,” she said. “That’s a chapter that needs to close so we need to move on.”

Greene said she would continue to support Ray.

“I’m sensitive to issues like this as a pastor and a female. It troubles my spirit,” Greene said. But “when there’s nothing there to sustain that it’s true… If you’re going to have gossip, you need to come with facts.”

Shante Avant, the board’s chairwoman, said she considered the investigation to be over this week and that the timing of the upcoming vote on April 30 was not related.

“They’re not correlated in any way. That’s just how the timing worked out,” she said. “The investigation said that nothing could be corroborated. Since that is the ruling, I want to make sure we don’t slander anyone’s name.”

Avant has supported conducting a national search since former superintendent Dorsey Hopson announced his resignation in November. She said neither the search nor the investigation should affect Ray’s chances of getting the job.

Opening up the application process “provides an opportunity to see if others are interested in the position and give Dr. Ray an opportunity to really shine,” she said.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs said the first time she saw the law firm’s reports was Thursday. She was aware of the investigation, but said she did not recall when she first learned of it.

“I don’t think that would have been on Dr. Ray,” to tell board there was an ongoing investigation. “I think that would have been up to the former superintendent about what was going on under his leadership,” she said.

Bibbs, who has not publicly expressed whether or not she would vote to hire Ray, said there’s no reason why the investigation should halt a vote. “If we spend our whole time going on ‘what if,’ then we will never get anything done.”

The board’s other four members did not respond to Chalkbeat’s request for comment Friday.