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Thursday, May 30, 2024

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A new superintendent – the insider vs. outsider debate!

TSD education columnist Curtis Weathers

So last week, Toni Williams officially became a candidate for the Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent’s job.

Williams’ candidacy has received pushback from some people because she was appointed to serve as interim superintendent after telling the School Board she was not interested in being the full-time superintendent.

While I am ecstatic about her decision to pursue this opportunity, I must admit, I am a bit surprised by some of the responses from the community.  

We need to quit stressing over the fact that she changed her mind. After six months on the job, I think she probably has come to realize that she too has what it takes to be a successful leader of this school system. 

I have no idea who else is interested in the position. As of today, in my opinion, based on what I have seen and heard, she is the right person for the job.

But clearly, there are those who vehemently disagree. And they are passionate about their disapproval. 

People are now attacking her character, and, unfortunately, if she gets the job, she’ll have to wear those scars for quite some time.

The school board could have easily denied her request to apply for the position, reminding her of the promise she made at the beginning of the process.  

Of course, only the board members can explain why they changed their minds.

The last time I checked, there were 24 other candidates applying for the job. This is not complicated. 

While she clearly has an advantage, let her compete with the other candidates, and let’s see who comes out on top.  

I have seen this search process unfold many times over the years, and drama seems always to be a part of the procedures.  

Here’s my basic argument. When you get past the fact that she changed her mind about applying for the job, the question of whether we hire an insider or an outsider to lead our school system begins to surface once again.  

I have always been opposed to bringing in people from the outside to do a job people on the inside are capable of performing just as well.  

This argument has been hotly debated for years when it comes to transitioning at the superintendent level. But the fact is that the insider/outsider debate is settled law.  

It doesn’t matter!

Many feel that insiders, who have risen through the ranks, would favor stability and slow, progressive incremental change, and would be reluctant to shake up the status quo.  

Instead of bringing in new staff and innovations from elsewhere, insiders, they argue, would instead seek new ideas and programs from longtime colleagues whom they trust.  

Well, what’s wrong with that? 

For many large urban districts, the rule has been to appoint outsiders who promise major changes to improve academic performance and organizational efficiencies.

An outsider, they argue, would come in and shake up the system and disrupt the status quo. They could bring in new people with new ideas from outside the system to improve operations and academic performance.  

While all of these are very plausible reasons to justify one’s support for insider or outsider choices, the fact is, there are no credible studies that support the notion that superintendents from outside a school system perform any better than those from inside the system.

Hiring Toni Williams, however, is a matter of practicality. 

I have always believed that we have the talent in our community to lead our school system. 

Over the years, we have had multiple superintendents from outside the Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and nothing about their performances left me believing in the magic of outside leadership.   

Toni Williams has been on an extended job interview for more than six months and is being scrutinized daily. 

She knows this system inside and out, and with her background in accounting and finance, she is more than capable of managing the resources at her disposal. 

She has the proven skills of a top executive who, I’m sure, is more than capable of surrounding herself with professionals who understand urban education.

Our School Board members have all the data they need to determine whether she can successfully lead one of America’s largest urban school systems.  

It’s hard to believe they would allow her to apply for the job if they thought otherwise.  

As far as I’m concerned, she has two things in her favor:

  1. Her extended interview (as interim superintendent) is going exceptionally well.
  2. She is a native Memphian.

I’d like to believe that our school system is a nurturing organization, purposely preparing people for the most challenging of leadership roles. 

So let her compete with the other candidates and stop criticizing the lady because she was allowed, and probably encouraged, to change her mind.

Let’s move forward with the process, and may the best person win.


(Follow me, TSD’s education columnist, on Twitter @curtisweathers. Email me at curtislweathers@gmail.com.)


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