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Memphis superintendent search in limbo as board balks at slate of finalists

The logo of the Memphis Shelby County Schools district

The Memphis-Shelby County Schools board announced three finalists for the superintendent job — the current interim superintendent, Toni Williams, Brenda Cassellius from Boston and Carlton Jenkins from the Madison, Wisconsin, district — but said it would hold off on interviewing them.

Ariel Cobbert for Chalkbeat

The selection process for Memphis-Shelby County Schools’ next superintendent got derailed Saturday when school board members raised questions about an outside search firm’s selection of three finalists shortly after their names were announced.

Now, the board is asking the search firm for the names of all 34 applicants, and it put off plans to interview finalists until it gets those names.

Saturday’s meeting was the first time the board deliberated publicly about the selection process since it voted to select the search firm, Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates of Schaumburg, Illinois. But instead of discussing the individual finalists, board members peppered Hazard Young officials with questions that made clear they were unsatisfied with the process and the results.

Some of their questions had been raised before by members of a community advisory committee that has challenged the lack of transparency in the process.

“I am not saying we want you to go back,” board Chair Althea Greene told Hazard Young officials during the meeting. “We are not just going to accept this … . We appreciate what you have done, but what I hear is it’s just not good enough.”

The board’s pushback adds a new wrinkle to a high-stakes search for a leader for Tennessee’s largest school district, which is struggling to improve academic outcomes for its 100,000 students and to sustain trust in the community. The previous superintendent, Joris Ray, resigned in August 2022 amid an external investigation into allegations that he abused his power and violated district policies.

Hazard Young, tapped in February to find Ray’s successor, presented the three finalists to board members Saturday: Brenda Cassellius, recently of Boston Public Schools; Carlton Jenkins of Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District; and Toni Williams, the current interim superintendent of MSCS. (See sidebar below for more about these candidates.)

The response from board members suggested that they expected — at some point during the process — to find out more than just the names of the three finalists, including more information on the full pool of applicants and how they were evaluated. They told Hazard Young President Max McGee and associate Micah Ali that their pushback was rooted in ensuring public trust in the process.

“This is not a restart. This is simply: Give us additional information to be able to validate to this deserving community that the right person will ultimately sit in this seat,” board member Kevin Woods said.

Board member Sheleah Harris said the board felt “unprepared, because we hired you all to do a job, and you did not do it well.”

Tikeila Rucker, a former teacher union leader and current community organizer, said she was frustrated that the board hadn’t raised its concerns with the firm earlier. 

“It sounds like the board is just as lost as we are, and that is unacceptable,” Rucker told Chalkbeat.  

Board member Stephanie Love acknowledged after the meeting that additional deliberation by the board in public meetings before Saturday could have prevented what she described as the “eleventh hour” hitch in the search. 

Board seeks applicant list firm did not prepare to provide

Applicants for the position were evaluated against a rubric with 16 categories, which included reviews of application documents plus references, “Memphis connection” and fit with MSCS’ needs, Hazard Young explained. Of the 34 applicants, 21 met qualifications for an interview, and 12 proceeded to the last stage, the search firm said. The three finalists were selected from that group. 

Some board members on Saturday questioned why they were not provided with the rubric earlier.

“I’m not going to say the people that we have here are not the best. But is there a way for us to have a little more input that these are who we want?” board member Joyce Dorse Coleman asked. 

Hazard Young’s contract for the search suggests there is room for more board involvement: It says the firm is charged with facilitating “board discussions to narrow (the) candidate pool after each round of interviews.”

That the board wants to know the names of all the applicants was new to Hazard Young, Ali said Saturday. It is unclear what information the board will eventually receive in response to that request. 

In a statement after the board meeting, Greene said the firm would contact applicants to find out whether they still want to be considered, then release those names publicly “for full transparency.” Under state law, as affirmed by a state attorney general’s opinion, records collected by Hazard Young in connection with the search are subject to open-records laws.

While Greene has previously said the board did not expect to receive a full applicant list, other board members Saturday said they had asked to know who all the candidates are.

Interim superintendent’s selection stirs some questions

Two of the finalists presented, Cassellius and Jenkins, have decades of experience in education. Williams, whose background is largely in finance, rose to the top tier for experience that Hazard Young called “nontraditional,” a term that could apply to applicants who came from a foundation, military, or business background. 

The board’s policy on minimum requirements for a superintendent calls for 10 years of experience in teaching or school administration. Hazard Young said it did not apply that policy to evaluate applicants. 

Harris, the board member, challenged the firm — and the selection of Williams as a finalist — on this point. If the board had given input on the rubric earlier, she said, the search “probably would have some different finalists.” 

Hazard Young told board members Saturday that Williams sought a legal opinion on the policy that found it was “void and unenforceable.” 

Kenneth Walker, attorney for the school board, said that the board’s policy was valid and that it gives the board discretion to choose someone with experience equivalent to the academic experience cited in the policy.


A closer look at the finalists

Memphis-Shelby County Schools hired the national search firm Hazard, Young, Attea, and Associates to oversee the search for its next superintendent. The firm picked three finalists:

Brenda Cassellius was recently the superintendent at Boston Public Schools for three years, and was the statewide education commissioner in Minnesota for almost a decade before that. Cassellius wanted to stay longer in the Boston leadership position, The Boston Globe reported, but left the job last summer. Her departure was announced as a mutual decision, but Cassellius told the Globe that recently elected Boston Mayor Michelle Wu “should be able to pick her own team.”

In Boston, Cassellius diversified the district’s exam schools, which require tests for admissions, the Globe reported. But during her tenure, which ran the length of the pandemic, she faced criticism from teachers, principals, and the teachers union.

Cassellius has ties to Memphis: She received her doctorate in education from the University of Memphis in 2007, according to a resume published by Boston Public Schools, and was an academic leader for Memphis City Schools’ middle schools from 2004 to 2007.

Carlton Jenkins announced plans to retire as superintendent of Wisconsin’s Madison Metropolitan School District in February. He assumed the role in August 2020 after a career in education that the Wisconsin State Journal wrote included a superintendency in suburban Minneapolis.

“Jenkins has prided himself on being a leader and a role model for Black students and staff in the district. He has been passionate about revamping the district’s reading curriculum,” the Journal wrote.

In Madison, Jenkins was the district’s first Black superintendent, according to Lake Geneva Regional News, and has been the president of the African American Superintendents Association.

Toni Williams became the interim superintendent of MSCS last August on the premise that she was not interested in the role permanently. She then changed her position and applied for the job last month. She has enjoyed support from community and board members alike as she focused on accountability measures during her interim tenure.

Before she was the interim superintendent, Williams was the chief financial officer for the district, appointed to the role in 2019 by Ray. She came to the district from a similar role at nearby Millington Municipal Schools, and worked for the district’s finance office for about three years after the city and county districts merged. Williams does not have academic experience outside of her interim role.

Williams is a native Memphian and a graduate of Whitehaven High School.

Laura Testino covers Memphis-Shelby County Schools for Chalkbeat Tennessee. Reach Laura at LTestino@chalkbeat.org.

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