The chief financial officer of Memphis-Shelby County Schools will serve as interim superintendent during the search to replace Joris Ray, who resigned last week while under investigation over claims that he abused his power and violated district policies.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday to name Toni Williams to the interim role.
Board member Althea Greene, who nominated Willams, emphasized her long track record of success with the district and said the board wanted to nominate someone as interim superintendent who had no intention of seeking the job on a permanent basis.
“We heard the public,” Greene said. “We heard your cry.”
The announcement of an interim superintendent was the expected next step in the school board’s effort to restore public trust and find a new leader for the state’s largest district at a time when students and educators are trying to recover from the pandemic’s toll.
It was also one of the final actions taken by the current board. The newly constituted board, with two new members elected Aug. 4, will begin its term on Wednesday.
Ray appointed Williams as finance chief in October 2019. A graduate of Memphis’ Whitehaven High School, Williams has held several roles with the district, including as a senior accountant, manager, and director of budget and accounting and reporting.
Williams also has served as chief financial officer in Millington Municipal Schools, a neighboring suburban school district in Shelby County, and has held leadership and financial positions with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. She returned to the Memphis district to take the chief financial officer position on an interim basis before taking the job permanently.
“Even though she is a number cruncher, everything that guides those numbers is a full understanding of what makes this district move forward for children,” board Chair Michelle McKissack said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Addressing the board after the vote, Williams said, “We will stay committed during this time keeping our students interested in the forefront of everything we do. Challenges and different decisions will come, and I promise to manage them with honesty, transparency and collaboration.”
Williams also pledged to involve community members in the work of improving Memphis Shelby County Schools.
“I listened to community advocates as of last week, and one said: ‘You can’t do this work alone.’ And I agree. I look forward to listening to community advocates. I look forward to creating those opportunities, and most importantly, to students, parents, you have done great work … we have academics trending in the right direction … .”
At least one community group, Memphis LIFT, had long sought Ray’s resignation. It made numerous appearances at board meetings during the summer.
In mid-July, the board launched an external investigation into Ray and put him on administrative leave following allegations contained in divorce filings that he had adulterous affairs with women later identified as district employees. Chalkbeat confirmed that two of the women Ray’s wife alleges that he had affairs with were people he supervised before becoming superintendent in April 2019.
Last week, the board voted to approve a severance package with Ray that will pay him the equivalent of 18 months’ salary — about $480,000 — plus some benefits. The deal also ended the investigation into whether Ray violated district policy.
The board’s attorney said Ray approached the district about a separation agreement, saying the investigation had “become distracting to and constraining for the district.” The district has said it will pay former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III, who was appointed to lead the investigation, $19,000 for his work.
Under the terms of the severance agreement, neither Ray nor the district admitted any wrongdoing.
A school 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. 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.
Ray denied violating any MSCS policies.
After Ray was put on leave, deputy superintendents Angela Whitelaw and John Barker shared duties leading the district — a role that will end with Williams’ appointment.
Ray was named superintendent in 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.
The district has promised to share details about the next search in the coming weeks.