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Memphis LIFT launches parent task force to give input on next superintendent

Six people sitting around a table converse in front of a wall with signs reading “We matter, our voices matter” and “Welcome to where we begin to make the powerless parent POWERFUL!”

The Memphis LIFT’s new Blue Ribbon parent task force gathers Monday at the parent advocacy organization’s North Memphis office to discuss what they’d like to see in the next superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County Schools.

Samantha West / Chalkbeat

As the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board prepares to launch its first national superintendent search in a decade, Charles Lampkin has several thoughts on the qualities he wants to see in the next leader.

Lampkin, the father of three MSCS students, thinks the next superintendent should prioritize transparency and be dedicated to rebuilding trust within the community. They should “keep a finger on the pulse” of the district, Lampkin said, and provide greater operations oversight. 

And most importantly, he says, the next person at the helm of Tennessee’s largest school district should be someone who wants to see all of the district’s more than 110,000 students grow and thrive and wants to support the teachers and school staff.

Lampkin was one of a dozen parents and grandparents who gathered Monday evening at the Memphis LIFT office for the first meeting of a Blue Ribbon task force that will draft a leadership profile describing the qualities and experiences they would like to see in the next superintendent, according to a news release.

The task force plans to share its findings to the MSCS board in hopes that the district’s next leader will “lift every student’s performance and move the district away from decades of chronically failing schools, poor facilities, and mismanagement,” the release says.

“The people in this room, we’re going to drive this bus,” Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis LIFT, a parent advocacy organization based in North Memphis, told meeting attendees.

The meeting comes days after MSCS board Chair Althea Greene announced on Twitter that the board will begin the national superintendent search later this month, when members will vote on whether they should begin the process of hiring a search firm. 

Greene added that the board expects to name a new leader by the end of the 2022-23 school year.

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Over two months ago, the board approved a separation agreement with former Superintendent Joris Ray, who had been under investigation for accusations that he abused his power and violated district policies by engaging in sexual relationships with subordinates. The agreement gave Ray a severance package of about $480,000 plus some benefits, and neither Ray nor the board admitted any wrongdoing.

Ray was appointed to the district’s top job in April 2019, after the board decided against a national search. Board members said they thought Ray, a career district employee who had been serving as interim superintendent for months, was an “exceedingly qualified candidate” and ruled a national search unnecessary given the time and cost it would take.

But some Memphians questioned whether Ray was the most qualified candidate for the job and felt the board should’ve widened its search. Memphis LIFT led the charge against Ray’s appointment.

That’s why the group decided to take charge and speak up on this search, Carpenter said Monday, calling the task force “huge” for the city. In addition to the parent task force, the organization also plans to assemble a student committee.

“We can’t have a superintendent that goes business as usual,” she said. “This system has been failing Black and brown children for decades and decades and I don’t want to hear any more excuses. We’ve got to do better and we can do better, starting with involving our parents.”

The task force will spend the next two months interviewing some of the nation’s top education officials, plus business and philanthropic leaders from other large cities. 

Carpenter said Monday she has already begun efforts to set up interviews with local leaders such as Elliot Perry of the Poplar Foundation and Terrence Patterson of the Memphis Education Fund, as well as nationally known figures like Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City who has championed charter schools. New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks has already agreed to meet with them, Carpenter said.

The task force wants to gain insight into what makes leaders effective and innovative and weigh it against what MSCS finalists say in their interviews later this school year, Ashlyn Sparks, co-chief of staff of Memphis LIFT, said Monday.

“We’re not looking for things that can be given from lip service,” Sparks said. “We’re not looking for them to say ‘literacy is important.’ We’re not looking for them to say ‘we need to clean house.’ Anybody can get up there and say all these things. We want to hear what actions and steps should these people be taking?”

The MSCS board is expected to continue discussions of the superintendent search during committee meetings scheduled for Nov. 15.

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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