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Memphis school board candidates want stronger superintendent policies

People sit in chairs inside of an auditorium as eight others sit on a stage in front.

Memphians listen as school board candidates for Memphis-Shelby County Schools answer questions during a forum co-sponsored by Chalkbeat on July 21, 2022. Election Day is Aug. 4.

Courtesy of Bruce Ralston

School board candidates in Memphis are calling for stronger policies to hold the board’s sole employee accountable after Tennessee’s largest district placed its superintendent on paid leave during an investigation into allegations that he abused his power and violated existing workplace policies.

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Chalkbeat thanks our candidate forum partners: MICAH, MICAH Youth Council, Memphis Education Fund, CHOICE, Stand for Children, Refugee Empowerment Program, Memphis Lift, Shelby County Youth Council, and Center for Transforming Communities. Special thanks to our event sponsor, the Urban Child Institute.

Questions about district leadership — and related policies — at Memphis-Shelby County Schools were front and center Thursday evening at a Chalkbeat-sponsored candidates forum that covered issues from gun violence and student mental health to looming questions surrounding Superintendent Joris Ray. 

More than 200 people attended in person, with others watching online, as 11 Memphians, including three incumbents, made their case for filling four seats up for grabs in the Aug. 4 election in Districts 1, 6, 8, and 9. One District 6 candidate, Kenny Lee, did not participate.

Watch our candidate forum in full above or at this link.

The current board voted 7-2 last week to place Ray on leave over allegations that he had adulterous relationships with co-workers. Ray has said he’s confident he has not violated district policies. At the specially called meeting on July 13, the board also appointed former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III to lead an investigation of Ray and named two deputy superintendents as interim leaders. 

“It’s obviously a question that’s very important, and it’s right at the front of the mind of everyone who’s in this room and in our community,” said board Chair Michelle McKissack, who is running for reelection in District 1 against former board Chair Chris Caldwell and educator Rachael Goodwin Spriggs.

McKissack, who unseated Caldwell in 2018, said her top priority is rebuilding trust, including “being transparent and laying out what the review reveals, and then … hearing input from the community.”

She acknowledged that a search for a new superintendent may follow and noted that the board will hold a retreat in September to review and “tighten up” existing policies. 

“This is something that is bigger than any one individual, and certainly not about any individual board member,” McKissack said. “This is about our district and our community as a whole and moving forward ... no matter who may be in that role as superintendent.”

“Rebuilding trust” was a phrase used by multiple candidates, including both of McKissack’s opponents. 

“Right now, there has been a loss of trust due to the lack of accountability when it comes to how we hold our superintendent accountable,” said Spriggs, a former Memphis teacher who co-founded the GAME Changers mentorship program in North Memphis. 

“That is one of the primary things we need to start with as a board, because that work probably will fall right in our lap if we’re elected,” Spriggs said.

Caldwell said strong policy is the best way to hold the superintendent — and board members themselves — accountable. He said the district had ethics policies in place for both when he served on the board from 2011 to 2018, including one year as chairman. 

“They were aspirational,” Caldwell said of the policies, “but they implied having the highest character and displaying that in front of the students.”

Caldwell said that a strong contract with a superintendent is also critical, and that he found Ray’s current contract vague about the consequences of misconduct.

“There was nothing in the contract that addresses this kind of situation,” he said.

In District 8, in East Memphis, Amber Huett-Garcia is the sole candidate to fill the seat of Billy Orgel, who chose not to seek reelection. She called for a comprehensive review of board policies.

“What we’re facing is interpretation here, and so making sure that it’s very clear that we’re holding all of our leadership accountable, not only our superintendent but anybody who is interacting with children,” she said.

Huett-Garcia, a former Memphis teacher and education policy adviser for Shelby County, suggested that Ray’s future with the district is precarious, even if current policies are unclear, because school leaders must be role models for students.

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” said Huett-Garcia, who formerly worked for the Tennessee Department of Education as director of student and family support. “For me, it’s an issue of integrity.”

Two candidates are on the ballot to represent District 9, which includes the Orange Mound neighborhood.

Challenger Rebecca Edwards said “much trust has been lost” between the district and the community in recent weeks. If elected, she pledged to make sure the board’s policies clarify that “you can’t do XYZ, and if you did that, it is grounds for termination.”

“The board has one employee, and that is the superintendent,” said Edwards, founder of Cultural Arts For Everyone, which works with students and underserved neighborhoods.

Edwards faces incumbent Joyce Dorse-Coleman, who along with board member Stephanie Love voted against the motion to place Ray on leave pending the investigation’s outcome.

Dorse-Coleman, a longtime resident and activist in Orange Mound, didn’t give specific reasons for her vote but said: “Whatever decisions that we have to make, I don’t take them lightly.”

Eight people sit on a stage in an auditorium.

Chalkbeat Tennessee reporter and forum moderator Samantha West, assisted by student moderator Ibrahim Hussein, hands the microphone to board candidates for Memphis-Shelby County Schools in Districts 1, 8, and 9.

Courtesy of Bruce Ralston

In District 6, which spans the Whitehaven, South Memphis, and Westwood communities, five candidates are challenging incumbent Charles Everett, who was appointed in March to fill a seat on the board after Shante Avant resigned.

Everett, a Westwood fixture and a longtime activist on local and state parent-teacher associations, said the investigation of Ray must be transparent and fair.

“We have to make sure that the community is confident in the process,” he said.

Should the board eventually oust Ray, challenger Tim Green Jr. favors a national search for a new leader — and a better process for evaluating superintendents. 

“Our teachers have more rigorous evaluations than our superintendent does,” said Green, a former teacher and education consultant who founded The Dividend and Memphis Restorative Justice Coalition, both programs that work with students.

Ray has consistently received positive evaluations since being hired as superintendent in 2019 after the board abandoned a national search for a successor to Dorsey Hopson. At the time, board members called Ray, a longtime district administrator who had been serving as interim superintendent for months, an “exceedingly qualified candidate” who could step in immediately.

David Page Jr., another challenger, said any decision about Ray’s future should be based on evidence uncovered by the investigation. But if Ray leaves, he opposes a national search for the district’s next leader.

“I think that person should be local,” said Page, a former teacher who owns The Ticket Program behavioral management group and serves as president of Westwood’s neighborhood association. “We have a problem with individuals outside of Memphis not really understanding this community.”

Tiffani Perry, another challenger, said questions about Ray have provided an opportunity to address “culture and climate” within the entire school system.

“The attitudes of our teachers, students, and our stakeholders is as a result of the leadership,” said Perry, the district’s former public information officer and the current chief of staff at the historically Black Rust College in North Mississippi.

Keith Williams, a former teacher who is executive director of the city’s largest teachers organization, said 28 teachers in the district were fired last year for behavior similar to what’s alleged against Ray, based on the law.

“We have to be fair, we have to be open, and we have to be consistent with policy,” said Williams, who is also running to replace Everett.

To learn more about the candidates and their positions on the issues, visit Chalkbeat’s Voter Guide.

Marta W. Aldrich is a senior correspondent who covers the statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Contact her at maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

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