by Samantha West. —
Memphis-Shelby County Schools Supt. Dr. Joris Ray, who was under investigation over claims that he abused his power and violated district policies, resigned Tuesday under an agreement with the school board that formally ends the inquiry.
At a special meeting Tuesday, the nine-member board approved an agreement that would give Ray a severance package equivalent to 18 months’ salary — his current contract pays him $293,550 a year — plus some other benefits. All members voted in favor, except for Stephanie Love, who did not vote.
IN THE WORKS at TSDMemphis.com: TSD Education columnist Curtis Weathers adds perspective to the MSCS way forward after Supt. Ray.
The school board launched the external investigation in mid-July following allegations contained in divorce filings that Ray had adulterous affairs with women later identified as district employees. The board appointed former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III to lead the investigation and placed Ray on administrative leave.
Since then, Chalkbeat learned that at least two of the women Ray’s wife alleges that he had affairs with were people he supervised before becoming superintendent.
Herman Morris, the MSCS board’s attorney, said Tuesday that earlier this month, Ray became concerned that the investigation had “become distracting to and constraining for the district” and proposed a mutual resignation agreement.
Deputy superintendents Angela Whitelaw and John Barker will continue leading the district until an interim chief is named, MSCS Board Chair Michelle McKissack said during a press conference after the meeting. The board will provide the public with more information about the district’s upcoming superintendent search in the coming weeks, McKissack said.
“We commend Dr. Ray’s longstanding commitment to Memphis-Shelby County Schools, and for his leadership during the pandemic,” she said. “But we are now looking forward to welcoming a new leader, who can build on the established foundation and take our district to the next level.”
Ray, who became superintendent in April 2019, has denied violating any MSCS policies since the Daily Memphian first reported on the divorce filings and the allegations against him.
Under the terms of the agreement, neither Ray nor the district is admitting any wrongdoing.
Current district policy, last updated in August 2021, “strongly discourages romantic or sexual relationships between a manager or other supervisory employee and their staff,” citing the risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, favoritism, and bias, according to the district’s employee handbook.
The policy also states that “given the uneven balance of power within such relationships, consent by the staff member is suspect and may be viewed by others, or at a later date by the staff member, as having been given as the result of coercion or intimidation.”
In addition, the policy requires parties to reveal any such relationships to managers. Chalkbeat filed an open-records request asking the district whether Ray disclosed any such relationships. The district later responded that no such documents exist.
The MSCS board also has a policy, adopted in 2017, describing the ethical code the superintendent must follow. The code requires the superintendent “to maintain standards of exemplary professional conduct” and says the superintendent must adhere to the following statement: “I will endeavor to fulfill my professional responsibilities with honesty and integrity.”
Ray was named superintendent after the MSCS board decided against searching nationally for the district’s next leader. Board members said at the time that they thought Ray, a longtime district employee who had been serving as interim superintendent for months, was an “exceedingly qualified candidate,” and said a national search was unnecessary and would cost the district valuable time and resources.
To board members and many others in the community, Ray was an example of an MSCS success story who overcame personal challenges and rose through the district’s ranks in a career spanning two decades. During his tenure as superintendent, Ray often discussed how his Memphis upbringing has shaped his perspective as an educator.
The youngest of seven children, Ray, 48, was born to parents who never completed their formal education. He went on to graduate from Whitehaven High School, and receive a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Memphis.
“If you look at what research says about me … there’s a 50% chance I’m supposed to be a high school dropout,” Ray told Chalkbeat in an exclusive interview in April. “But through a high-quality education and caring teachers, look at where I am today.”
Ray’s mother had a brain aneurysm when Ray was 12 years old. He credited his pre-algebra teacher who checked on him every day — academically, socially, and mentally — for helping him get through that traumatic event and shaping his own approach to teaching.
“She wanted something more for me, and she understood what I was going through at home,” Ray said in April. “That’s what I bring to the table, because I want something more for our students, each and every day.”
But some Memphians questioned whether Ray was the most qualified candidate for the job and felt the board should’ve widened its search. Others expressed concern about complaints of sexual harrassment lodged against Ray months earlier, though a district investigation concluded there was no wrongdoing.
A year into his tenure as superintendent, COVID struck. Under Ray’s leadership, MSCS was among the first districts in Tennessee to shutter classrooms – and among the last to fully reopen for in-person learning.
For much of the 2020-21 school year, Gov. Bill Lee and other GOP leaders pressed MSCS to offer in-person learning. But Ray resisted, pledging to continue giving teachers the option to work from home to keep them and the district’s students safe.
In February 2021, Ray relented and called on educators and students to return to classrooms, citing declining COVID cases in the county and a legislative proposal to cut funding for school systems that do not offer at least 70 days of in-person learning that school year. Most students opted not to return, except for state standardized testing later in the spring.
The majority of MSCS students didn’t return to in-person learning until the 2021-22 school year. The expected comeback year turned out to be what Ray called the “hardest year ever” as the district faced more COVID surges, ever-changing mask guidance, staffing struggles, growing community frustration about the district’s poor academic performance, a school shooting, and gun violence throughout the community, among other challenges.
Still, Ray pushed forward with several of his flagship initiatives, such as boosting early literacy, recruiting and retaining high-quality teachers, improving facilities, expanding before- and after-school tutoring, and increasing access to advanced academics.
And through it all, Ray enjoyed consistent support from the school board, receiving high marks on all his evaluations and an early contract extension through 2025 that included a 3 percent pay raise. Board members again praised Ray this summer for the district’s improvements on state standardized tests to near pre-pandemic levels.
The support appeared to soften, however, amid the new investigation into Ray’s conduct, with some school board members and candidates calling for stricter accountability over the superintendent during Chalkbeat’s candidate forum.
Keith Williams, a former teacher and executive director of the city’s largest teachers organization and who is joining the school board next week, said 28 teachers in the district were fired last year for behavior similar to what’s alleged against Ray, based on the law.
“We have to be fair, we have to be open, and we have to be consistent with policy,” said Williams, who defeated District 6 appointee Charles Everett in the election earlier this month.
(This developing story will be updated. Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected])