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MSCS human resources chief is put on leave after complaint

A woman wearing a black blazer and pink top smiles while crrossing her arms

The nature of a complaint against Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of human resources, was not immediately clear as of Friday afternoon.

For the second time in six weeks, a Memphis-Shelby County Schools official has been placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation into an employee complaint.

The nature of the complaint against Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of human resources, was unclear as of Tuesday morning. The district declined to comment on the investigation on Friday, and in a statement, interim Superintendent Toni Williams said the district “investigates all employee complaints as we continue our ongoing efforts to emphasize integrity in all MSCS functions.” 

Weeks earlier, the district put John Barker, deputy superintendent for strategic operations and finance, on leave following an employee complaint. The Commercial Appeal reported last month that Martin complained of ongoing race- and sex-based harrassment, intimidation, and discrimination by Barker, her direct supervisor.

“Dr. Barker makes me feel as though my voice does not matter and my thoughts are irrelevant as a black woman,” Martin wrote in an eight-page complaint obtained by Chalkbeat.

Martin, who has been on family and medical leave since Sept. 13, said Monday that the complaint and investigation “blindsided” her. When a district employee informed her she was under investigation last week, Martin said they didn’t give her any information about the complaint or an update on the status of her complaint against Barker.

Martin says the investigation of her may be retaliation. In an email dated Sept. 13 that Martin provided to Chalkbeat, she told several administrators she heard from “reliable sources” that Barker was “attempting to galvanize former employees to write statements/file false complaints” against her.

Martin said several principals and other district employees have reached out to her since word got out about her being placed on leave, saying they were “concerned and scared” that they will be retaliated against if they also file harassment complaints.

Board Chair Althea Greene said Friday that Martin’s leave is not related to her complaint against Barker. She declined to comment further. The district did not respond to questions about Martin’s allegations as of Tuesday morning. On Friday, the district confirmed Barker remains on leave. 

Barker and fellow Deputy Superintendent Angela Whitelaw recently served as co-acting superintendents while Joris Ray was on paid administrative leave over claims that he abused his power and violated district policies. Ray resigned in late August under a severance agreement with the board. 

The absence of two key district leaders comes in the midst of an already tumultuous school year for MSCS, as the district faces challenges such as an upcoming national superintendent search, academic recovery from the COVID pandemic, declining enrollment, teacher shortages, rising gun violence, and concerns about student mental health.

Asked about how the suspensions might affect the district’s response to its personnel challenges, Sarah Carpenter, executive director of the parent advocacy group Memphis LIFT, said: “I trust this interim superintendent and the school board to do what’s right.”

This story has been updated with new information.

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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