Tensions in superintendent search mount after MSCS Board member resigns, activists sue board

Published: Jun. 14, 2023 at 6:07 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Big changes are happening at the Memphis-Shelby County School (MSCS) Board.

Not only did Vice Chair Sheleah Harris resign on Tuesday, but qualifications for who can apply to be the next leader of MSCS are also stirring up controversy.

Harris was elected to represent District 5, which includes mostly Cordova.

She announced that Tuesday was her last meeting as a member of the board.

“This is the highest level of ignorance I have ever been part of, and for my own health, I just can’t be part of it anymore,” said Harris.

Her resignation comes in the middle of an intense months-long search for a permanent superintendent.

The future of her seat is now in the hands of the Shelby County Commission, which will have to decide who will fill the rest of Harris’ term.

“School board members have a vital role, but I would say the number one duty is to select and to hire a superintendent, so this is the most critical time you would want a fully-complemented school board,” said Shelby County Commissioner Mick Wright. “So, this is a very puzzling move by school board member Harris.”

Meanwhile Tuesday, the board approved 11 qualifications for the future superintendent and also officially changed a more than decade-old policy that requires future applicants to have experience in the classroom.

Now, the only requirement is 10 years of work experience.

Every school board member present voted in favor of the change; Harris abstained from the vote.

Some community advocates say the last thing the board should be doing is relaxing the requirements for superintendent.

“If they open up the pool, they’ve sent a message across the nation, ‘Oh, anybody can be superintendent of this district,’” said Tikeila Rucker with the education advocacy group Memphis for All.

Rucker, a critic of the superintendent search process and also a former MSCS teacher, was one of five activists who sued the MSCS Board on Tuesday after they were banned from attending all public board meetings for their “disruptive behavior” during a May 9 meeting.

“We cannot continue to act like opening the pool will allow people who are more qualified to want to join, because what we did in the face of everyone is we lowered criteria to meet one very specific candidate,” said Rachael Spriggs, statewide organizing director with The Equity Alliance.

Spriggs, who previously worked with the district as a consultant during this search process and was also banned from board meetings, is referring to interim Superintendent Toni Williams, who currently does not have classroom experience.

Action News 5 reached out to MSCS for an interview with Williams to address some of these concerns, but we have not yet heard back.

MSCS sent out a letter to families and staff about the superintendent search, saying in part:

“That daunting process has contributed to valid frustrations. Please know that we remain committed to moving forward with transparency, fairness and a thorough evaluation of all candidates.”

As far as Harris’ seat is concerned, Commissioner Wright says he suspects the Shelby County Commission will begin taking interviews for her position sometime in July.

A list of qualifications for the position can be found here.

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