Joris Ray is the next superintendent of Shelby County Schools, following a unanimous school board vote Tuesday evening. The decision ends an early-stage search for a new schools leader.
Calling him an “exceedingly qualified candidate,” a resolution approved by the nine-member board says a national search was unnecessary, and would cost the district valuable time and resources. Ray’s selection marks a reversal from the school board, which signaled early on they planned to conduct a national search with ample opportunity for public input before making a decision.
“Time is of the essence and the Board does not feel that it can afford to have the District held at a stand-still while a national search progresses or unnecessarily spend money on a search when an exceedingly qualified candidate is currently serving as the Interim Superintendent,” the resolution read.
A firm the district identified would have charged about $44,000 to conduct a national search.
That search was only barely underway three months after Ray started as interim superintendent. Ray replaces Dorsey Hopson who left for to work for the health insurance company Cigna after nearly six years at the district’s helm.
“I have a holy determination to do what’s best for children in Shelby County Schools,” Ray said soon after the vote. “It’s not about me. … We have children that are being murdered in the streets. We have one in five of our students by third grade aren’t reading at grade level. We have 23% of our students leaving us college-ready. The time is now.”
He becomes the third interim leader of Memphis schools to stay on as superintendent since the 1950s, according to a review from the Daily Memphian. He also joins the majority of superintendents in the last 60 years to rise from within district ranks.
Ray started as a teacher at Kirby Middle School in the late 1990s and then served as assistant principal before moving into district-level roles with alternative schools and academic support. His current annual salary, as interim superintendent, is $285,000, the same as Hopson’s was. Ray’s final salary will be determined in upcoming contract negotiations.
Teachers, administrators, and parents packed Tuesday’s school board meeting, causing the district to open an overflow room with a live stream in a neighboring building. District principals were allowed to enter the meeting in the main building because there was already a spot set aside for them, said Gerald Darling, the chief of student support services, who oversees security.
Most of the people who spoke during the public comment period asked the board to “stay with Ray,” a slogan matching T-shirts worn by several attendees.
“There’s not a time I have called him and he has not responded,” said Wynn Earle, who was one of seven principals who expressed their support Tuesday evening, making up a third of supporters during public comment. “His word is his word. He takes care of his own. And I know he will do the same thing for all the students in Shelby County Schools.”
Posters calling for a national search mostly came from advocates with parent organization Memphis Lift.
As more board members signaled they would support hiring Ray, members of Memphis Lift left the meeting and moved to the parking lot chanting, “We want a search.” At some points, they drowned out board member comments.
“You have 20 pages of job openings and this should be the first one,” said one parent during public comment. “Parents deserve the right person to sit at the table with y’all. We deserve a search.”
At a February board meeting, many educators in attendance said they backed hiring Ray, and shared stories about his commitment to students in the district. Board members noted a similar flood of support for Ray from their constituents over the past few weeks.
Board member Michelle McKissack, who previously wanted a national search, said she changed her mind after a trip to Nashville with Ray to advocate for Memphis schools during a meeting with the governor.
“He proved that he was indeed the superintendent of the largest district in the state, head and shoulders,” McKissack said. “He looked the governor straight in the eye and told him why the district opposed the education savings accounts.”
Shante Avant, the board’s chairwoman and another early proponent of a national search, cited the outpouring of support from district employees in her vote to hire Ray.
“I think we have seen tonight resoundingly that you have the support of administrators, and teachers, and principals within this district,” she said. “I think that is a huge component that’s necessary in one’s leadership.”
Tikeila Rucker, president of the teacher group United Education Association of Shelby County, said she felt teachers had a say in the decision.
“We are glad we will have an educator to serve in the role as superintendent,” Rucker said after the meeting. Her group is currently in negotiations with the district on an updated agreement on employment issues such as benefits and working condition. “We’re hopeful and excited.”
The tide turned toward Ray earlier this month as board members discussed which search firm they wanted to hire. Stephanie Love abruptly proposed a resolution to abandon the national search and hire Ray, whom she initially nominated as interim leader in December. Two other board members, Althea Greene and Billy Orgel, immediately expressed support for the resolution.
Then 10 days later, the district released an investigation into a letter, signed with a first initial and last name, claiming Ray had sexually harassed them and several others. Shelby County Schools had hired a team of lawyers a couple of months before he was named interim superintendent. Attempts to identify the letter writer came up empty. The complaint and another investigation — this one into misuse of school funds and unethical hiring, also unverified — were not in Ray’s labor file where complaints are normally stored.
The next day, most school board members said the investigation’s release would not influence their vote on whether to hire Ray since the claims were unproven.
Love called the claims “slander,” and expressed sympathy for Ray in light of the allegations.
“They tried to tarnish the name of an African-American man who is trying to do what’s right by the citizens of Shelby County,” she said.
Keith Norman, a pastor of First Baptist Church Broad and former president of the local NAACP, praised the parents who came out in favor of a national search, but said it was time to rally around Ray.
“Right now, there’s some candidate outside of Memphis Googling facts about Memphis trying to get a job. But we have a candidate who is right here ready to start that job in the morning,” he said to applause from the audience.
This story has been updated.