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A woman stands in front of a podium with TV news microphones, with a man and woman standing beside her

Memphis-Shelby County Schools board Chair Michelle McKissack (center) speaks with reporters during a press conference on Aug. 23, after the board approved an agreement ending Joris Ray’s employment with the district. McKissack is joined by fellow board members Charles Everett and Althea Greene.

Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat

Joris Ray agrees to resign as Memphis-Shelby County Schools chief under deal with board

Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray, who was under investigation over claims that he abused his power and violated district policies, resigned Tuesday under an agreement with the school board that formally ends the inquiry.

At a special meeting Tuesday, the nine-member board approved an agreement that will give Ray a severance package equivalent to 18 months’ salary — about $480,000 — plus some other benefits. All members voted in favor, except for Stephanie Love, who did not vote.

The school board launched the external investigation in mid-July following allegations contained in divorce filings that Ray had adulterous affairs with women who were later identified as district employees. The board appointed former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III to lead the investigation and placed Ray on administrative leave.

Since then, Chalkbeat learned that at least two of the women Ray’s wife alleges that he had affairs with were people he supervised before becoming superintendent.

Herman Morris, the MSCS board’s attorney, said Tuesday that earlier this month, Ray became concerned that the investigation had “become distracting to and constraining for the district” and proposed a mutual resignation agreement.

A man wearing a suit stands in front of a microphone

Herman Morris addresses the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board during a special meeting Tuesday. The board hired Morris to represent them over the course of the external investigation of Superintendent Joris Ray.

Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat

Deputy superintendents Angela Whitelaw and John Barker will continue leading the district until an interim chief is named, MSCS board Chair Michelle McKissack said during a press conference after the meeting. The board will provide the public with more information about the district’s upcoming superintendent search in the coming weeks, McKissack said.

“We commend Dr. Ray’s longstanding commitment to Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and for his leadership during the pandemic,” she said. “But we are now looking forward to welcoming a new leader, who can build on the established foundation and take our district to the next level.”

In a message to district families and employees after Tuesday’s meeting, Barker and Whitelaw said they will continue working toward “expanded academic gains and opportunities for all students” while the board determines next steps of the superintendent search.

“Rest assured, students, teachers, and staff will continue to have strong advocates in us during the days ahead,” Barker and Whitelaw wrote in the message.

Sarah Carpenter, who as executive director of Memphis Lift has led community calls for Ray to resign for months, vowed Tuesday to “keep the pressure on” district officials to improve academic performance and transparency, and called for a national search for Ray’s successor.

“We need a revolutionary person for our children,” Carpenter said. “We cannot have business as usual anymore.”

Since the Daily Memphian first reported on the divorce filings and the allegations against him, Ray has denied violating any MSCS policies.

Under the terms of the agreement, neither Ray nor the district is admitting any wrongdoing. The investigation will remain incomplete after the board declared it “moot” with Ray no longer employed at the district. The board will pay Stanton $19,000 for his work over the last month.

McKissack said the board still plans to review all of its policies — including those involving the superintendent — in the coming weeks, after current board members and candidates expressed broad support for strengthening them. New board members elected in the Aug. 4 contest will be sworn in Aug. 31.

Current district policy, last updated in August 2021, “strongly discourages romantic or sexual relationships between a manager or other supervisory employee and their staff,” citing the risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, favoritism, and bias, according to the district’s employee handbook. 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.”

In addition, the policy requires parties to reveal any such relationships to managers. Chalkbeat filed an open records request asking the district whether Ray disclosed any such relationships. The district later responded that no such documents exist.

The MSCS board also has a policy, adopted in 2017, describing the ethical code the superintendent must follow. The code requires the superintendent “to maintain standards of exemplary professional conduct” and says the superintendent must adhere to the following statement: “I will endeavor to fulfill my professional responsibilities with honesty and integrity.” 

Ray’s tenure marked by controversy

Ray’s time leading Tennessee’s largest school district has been bumpy.

Ray was named superintendent in April 2019, after the MSCS board decided against searching nationally for the district’s next leader. Board members said at the time that they thought Ray, a longtime district employee who had been serving as interim superintendent for months, was an “exceedingly qualified candidate,” and said a national search was unnecessary and would cost the district valuable time and resources.

To board members and many others in the community, Ray was an example of an MSCS success story who overcame personal challenges and rose through the district’s ranks in a career spanning two decades. During his tenure as superintendent, Ray often discussed how his Memphis upbringing has shaped his perspective as an educator.

The youngest of seven children, Ray, 48, was born to parents who never completed their formal education. He went on to graduate from Whitehaven High School, and receive a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Memphis.

“If you look at what research says about me … there’s a 50% chance I’m supposed to be a high school dropout,” Ray told Chalkbeat in an exclusive interview in April. “But through a high quality education and caring teachers, look at where I am today.” 

Ray’s mother had a brain aneurysm when Ray was just 12 years old. He credited his pre-algebra teacher who checked on him every day — academically, socially, and mentally — for helping him get through that traumatic event and shaping his own approach to teaching.

“She wanted something more for me, and she understood what I was going through at home,” Ray said in April. “That’s what I bring to the table, because I want something more for our students, each and every day.” 

But some Memphians questioned whether Ray was the most qualified candidate for the job and felt the board should’ve widened its search. Others expressed concern about complaints of sexual harrassment lodged against Ray months earlier, though a district investigation concluded there was no wrongdoing.

Superintendent Joris Ray stands at a podium with a microphone at Whitehaven High School in an award ceremony.

Joris Ray was named superintendent in April 2019. To board members and others in the community, Ray was an example of an MSCS success story who overcame personal challenges and rose through the district’s ranks in a career spanning two decades.

Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal

Dealing with with pandemic

A year into his tenure as superintendent, COVID struck. Under Ray’s leadership, MSCS was among the first districts in Tennessee to shutter classrooms — and among the last to fully reopen for in-person learning.

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For much of the 2020-21 school year, Gov. Bill Lee and other GOP leaders pressed MSCS to offer in-person learning. But Ray resisted, pledging to continue giving teachers the option to work from home to keep them and the district’s students safe. 

In February 2021, Ray relented and called on educators and students to return to classrooms, citing declining COVID cases in the county and a legislative proposal to cut funding for school systems that do not offer at least 70 days of in-person learning that school year. Most students opted not to return, except for state standardized testing later in the spring.

The majority of MSCS students didn’t return to in-person learning until the 2021-22 school year. The expected comeback year turned out to be what Ray called the “hardest year ever” as the district faced more COVID surges, ever-changing mask guidance, staffing struggles, growing community frustration about the district’s poor academic performance, a school shooting, and gun violence throughout the community, among other challenges.

Still, Ray pushed forward with several of his flagship initiatives, such as boosting early literacy, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, improving facilities, expanding before- and after-school tutoring, and increasing access to advanced academics.

And through it all, Ray enjoyed consistent support from the school board, receiving high marks on all his evaluations and an early contract extension through 2025 that included a 3% pay raise. Board members again praised Ray this summer for the district’s improvements on state standardized tests to near pre-pandemic levels.

The support appeared to soften, however, amid the new investigation into Ray’s conduct, with some school board members and candidates calling for stricter accountability over the superintendent during Chalkbeat’s candidate forum. 

Keith Williams, a former teacher and executive director of the city’s largest teachers organization who is joining the school board next week, 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 defeated District 6 appointee Charles Everett in the election earlier this month.

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

Alejandra Machín contributed information to this report.