During the Thanksgiving holiday, MSCS Interim Supt./CFO Toni Williams was grateful for these expressions of "thanks" sent her way. (Photo: MSCS)
TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

Amid all the administrative turmoil within Memphis-Shelby County Schools, Chief Financial Officer Tutonial ‘Toni’ Williams was asked to serve as interim superintendent, help steady the ship and keep our school system moving forward. 

So far, almost three months in, she seems to be doing a pretty good job.

I got a chance to meet and speak with Williams last week. 

I appreciated and enjoyed the opportunity to discuss her plans for moving our school system forward.

Interim Supt. Toni Williams (center) with MSCS board members (l-r) Michelle McKissack, Althea Greene (chairperson), Joyce Dorse Coleman and Stephanie Love. (Photo: MCSC)

The district continues to rock and reel from the dismissal of former superintendent Dr. Joris Ray and, just recently, the resignation of two top district leaders — Dr. Yolanda Martin, the district’s chief of Human Resources, and John Barker, deputy superintendent of Strategic Operations and Finance. 

On top of all that, the district announced last month that its Chief of Business Operations Genard Phillips will be leaving as well. His position already has been filled.

Williams is known for her honesty and straightforwardness. She struck me as a strong, no-nonsense, all-business type of person, but with a pleasant personality. 

To my knowledge, she has not been asked to perform any miracles, just guide the ship. 

She is a Memphian and a proud graduate of Whitehaven High School. But, for her, this is not just a job, “it’s personal,” she said. She grew up in this community. 

Interim Supt. Toni Williams, MSCS’ chief financial officer, knows her way around the district’s classrooms. (Photo: MSCS)

“I earned my education in the same classrooms our students are sitting in today,” she said. “This community is mine, and I love serving it every day!” 

Her reaction when she was asked to serve as superintendent was one of shock and surprise. She admitted fear set in for a moment, but shortly thereafter her confidence, boldness, and a renewed spirit returned. 

I asked Williams what she wanted to accomplish during her short tenure as the head of Memphis-Shelby County Schools. 

Well, she has spent considerable time doing what she refers to as “leading by listening.”  

First, principals want her to take a close look at the resources that are available to them and create a more equitable system for distributing those resources. 

“Equal does not mean equitable, and the needs of some schools are different,” Williams said. 

She wants to be very “intentional” about how district schools, including charter schools, are funded, and supported. 

She recently distributed more than $24 million in federal funds to district (and charter) schools to fund programs like family engagement, behavior interventions, technology, and various other support programs.

School leaders were not expecting the added funds and were pleasantly surprised to receive the support. 

Second, she is focusing on the recruitment of new teachers and ensuring that the district can keep the ones that are currently under contract. 

“So, in these first 30 to 45 days, I have heard a lot from teachers, and those teachers say that they are exhausted from the pandemic. This has impacted us like no other. 

“And so, because they are so exhausted many of them are not returning to the teaching profession,” Williams explained.

As a result, she is taking a close look at teacher compensation, incentives, support, and workplace environment.

Third, she is focusing on the district’s vocational tech (CCTE) program. The superintendent wants to better understand our city’s workforce needs and what the district produces in industry certifications to fill those needs. 

“I’ve been talking to the business community and Chamber of Commerce, and there is a gap between workforce needs and what we produce in our schools,” Williams said. 

Over the last four years, MSCS increased the number of industry-certified students from approximately 150 to more than 6,000 students. The superintendent wants to increase that number to 10,000 over the next few years. 

And lastly, of course, we discussed academic achievement. 

(Photo: MSCS)

In the near term, the district will face even more obstacles to its efforts to improve student achievement. The superintendent pointed to some of the district’s extended learning and other supplemental programs, many of which are funded by COVID relief dollars. 

She is concerned that those dollars will disappear in the next few years (after 2024) and, as a result, present a challenge to maintaining some of the programs and their impact on academic achievement.

While she is in no way satisfied with overall achievement levels in the district, she gave a hearty shoutout to school leaders and teachers. 

“Despite all the obstacles we have faced in this COVID era, we as a district are indeed trending up. Test scores are moving in the right direction, and last year, the graduation rate increased from 71 percent to 80 percent,” Williams said.

She clearly recognizes, though, that we have a long way to go to get to where our school system genuinely wants to be.

The Memphis/Shelby County community is just getting to know our new interim superintendent. She has an incredibly challenging job ahead of her, but she is settling in quite well. 

I am sure the superintendent search committee will not only cast their nets far and wide in search of a new leader, but I hope they will also take a close look at what is right here in front of them. 

I am convinced we have capable leadership for our school system right here in Memphis, and just maybe that person’s name is Tutonial “Toni” Williams.

(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at [email protected].)