As school board members approved a contract Wednesday for Shelby County Schools’ Interim Superintendent Joris Ray, a vocal contingent of principals, teachers, parents, and students told them that Ray should stay on long-term.

Shelby County Schools board unanimously voted to approve an annual $285,000 salary for Ray as part of a contract that goes to June 2020, unless the board makes a permanent hire before then. Board member Billy Orgel was not present at the meeting.

Ray has expressed interest in becoming the next superintendent, and the school board is in the process of choosing a national search firm — something that many of Ray’s supporters say there is no need for.

“There’s a praise and worship song that will sum up the national search: I searched all over, I couldn’t find nobody… nobody greater than Ray,” said Kirby High principal Steevon Hunter to thunderous laughter and applause. “I say stay with Ray.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Interim superintendent Joris Ray responds to the flood of support at Wednesday’s school board meeting.

Several people in attendance shared anecdotes about Ray’s commitment to helping students, teachers, and principals excel throughout his more than 20 years in Memphis schools.

A former Memphis educator, Deborah Coakley, said Ray has worked his way through the ranks and has “done it all.” And student Kyra Sims, a member of the district’s student congress, said Ray takes the time to listen to student concerns.

“No other adult has done that before,” Sims said.

Ray, a career Memphis educator, was appointed in December and started in the interim role mid-January. He’ll make the same salary as his predecessor, Dorsey Hopson, who led Tennessee’s largest school district for nearly six years, before leaving for a job at the healthcare giant Cigna.

On Wednesday, Ray announced two new hires, including a cabinet-level position.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Left: John Barker, new chief of staff for Shelby County Schools

John Barker was tapped to be the district’s chief of staff, a role he once held in the former Memphis City Schools district. Brian Stockton, the chief of staff under Hopson who was hired in 2016, will now be an advisor to Ray on special projects.

Jerica Phillips will be a deputy communications director, leaving her job as an anchor and reporter for a local TV station. Salaries for both hires were not made available Wednesday evening.

In the interim superintendent role, Ray has moved quickly to propose initiatives, such as hiring second-grade teaching assistants, training all staff on how to spot childhood trauma, and adding English and math coaches at high schools.

Board chair Shante Avant has said the search for the district’s next leader could last until 2020, though some board members hope they can name someone before the start of next school year in August.

If the board chooses the district’s next leader before Ray’s contract ends in June 2020, “the transfer of the interim superintendent shall be to a position determined by the permanent superintendent.” In the meantime, Ray will be subject to an evaluation from the school board, have 20 vacation days, and access to a district-owned car, according to his contract.