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MSCS board launches external investigation of Superintendent Joris Ray

Man sits behind podium with his arms crossed

Joris Ray, pictured at a recent Memphis-Shelby County Schools board meeting, will continue serving as superintendent throughout the external review.

Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board on Thursday announced it would launch an external investigation of Superintendent Joris Ray — a day after a news report alleged Ray had adulterous relationships, potentially with current and former district employees.

“We have called for a full and complete review into these allegations,” MSCS board Chair Michelle McKissack said in a statement. “If there are allegations of impropriety against the superintendent, the sole position we oversee at the school district, then it’s our sworn obligation to look further into the allegations.” 

The Daily Memphian on Wednesday reported that recent filings in Ray’s divorce case said he had admitted to having sexual relations outside of his marriage with three women. The Commercial Appeal confirmed on Thursday that two of the women named in the court documents currently or previously worked for the district.

The court filings, which Chalkbeat obtained copies of, do not specify when the alleged relationships occurred, other than a reference to a nondisclosure agreement signed by one of the women in January 2004. It is also unclear whether Ray directly supervised either of the women, how much their time at the district overlapped, or how closely they worked together.

In a statement sent through the district’s communications office, Ray said that he respects the board’s oversight responsibility and welcomes “a fair investigation of his adherence” to district policies.

“I am confident that my private actions have not broken any rules of conduct nor violated any policies,” he said.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McKissack and board Vice Chair Althea Greene said they became aware of the accusations against Ray late Wednesday, after they started receiving text messages and voicemails from the public about the Daily Memphian story. The nine-member board convened later that evening for an emergency executive session, and decided to launch the investigation at the recommendation of contracted legal counsel Herman Morris. (The meeting was not publicized on the district’s website or BoardDocs, the school board’s online agenda management system.)

Ray, who has led Tennessee’s largest school district for three years, will continue serving as superintendent throughout the inquiry, according to Thursday’s board statement. Once the inquiry is complete, the board will determine the “next and appropriate steps.”

Until then, the board urged the community “not to rush to judgment and to allow due process to play out.”

Board members offered little insight into the investigation process on Thursday. McKissack said the board is still working on selecting independent legal counsel to lead it, and she couldn’t yet offer an exact timeline for when it will be completed.

“We want to move as quickly as possible, but we also want to be thorough,” McKissack said.

Board members said the outcome of the investigation would help determine whether the district needs to change its current policy for amorous relationships between employees.

The policy “strongly discourages romantic or sexual relationships between a manager or other supervisory employee and their staff,” according to the district’s employee handbook, last updated in August 2021. It cites the risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, favoritism and bias, and requires parties to disclose any relationship to managers.

The policy also states that “given the uneven balance of power within such relationships, consent by the staff member is suspect and may be viewed by others, or at a later date by the staff member, as having been given as the result of coercion or intimidation.”

Ray, 48, has faced controversy from the beginning of his tenure as the leader of MSCS. He was named Memphis schools chief in April 2019, after the board decided to abandon a national search. 

At the time, board members called Ray, a longtime district employee who had been serving as interim superintendent for several months, an “exceedingly qualified candidate,” and said a national search was unnecessary and would cost the district valuable time and resources. 

Some Memphians disagreed, though, and protested the appointment. Others expressed concern about complaints of sexual harrassment lodged against Ray months earlier. A district investigation concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

During the height of the pandemic, Ray clashed with Gov. Bill Lee and GOP leaders over his decision to keep students learning remotely during much of the 2020-21 school year. But he has enjoyed consistent support from the school board, receiving high marks in his evaluations and an early contract extension through 2025.

And the board continued to stand by Ray throughout the most recent school year, as he was criticized for the district’s poor academic performance on 2021 state standardized tests.

Last month, the criticism came to a head when two education advocacy organizations, Memphis Lift and Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, urged Ray to resign.

On Thursday, Sarah Carpenter, executive director of Memphis Lift, again called for Ray to resign, and questioned why the board allowed him to continue serving as superintendent during the investigation.

Greene, the board vice chair, said she considers Ray “innocent until proven guilty.”

“My confidence in Dr. Ray’s leadership has not been shaken,” she said. “It’s only being tested.”

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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