Michelle McKissack has outlined several priorities for her prospective mayoral campaign: improving public safety, expanding public transit, and fighting blight by investing in neighborhoods. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender Archives)

by Samantha West —

Michelle McKissack, chairwoman of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board since last year, is mulling a run to become the city’s next mayor.

McKissack, who has represented District 1 since 2018 and was recently reelected, on Tuesday announced the formation of an exploratory committee for a campaign to succeed Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, whose term expires at the end of 2023. If elected, she would be the first woman to hold the city’s highest elected office.

“As a lifelong Memphian, mother of four children, and a staunch supporter of our public school system, I believe we’re at a critical, decision-making point in this city,” McKissack said in a statement on Monday. “Memphis families are doing all that we can to turn things around in our own neighborhoods and protect our children, but it’s now time for a big vision from leadership that puts families first.”

McKissack would be joining what is already shaping up to be a packed race for Memphis mayor next year. Strickland, who endorsed McKissack’s reelection campaign last month, is term-limited and can’t run for reelection.

If McKissack moves forward with a campaign, she would become the third school board member to pursue higher office this year — at a time when MSCS has publicly clashed with city and county government over school funding and each entity’s role in solving other regional issues such as rising gun violence.

Miska Clay Bibbs and Shante Avant, two longtime MSCS board members, recently left the school board after winning election to the Shelby County Commission. Both Bibbs and Avant touted their experience on the MSCS board during their campaigns for the commission, the district’s second-largest funding source behind the state.

Over the last two years, the commission has granted the district less than half of its $55 million requests for capital improvement funds to fix up or rebuild aging school buildings. Commissioners have urged the district to turn instead to taxpayers or the city government to seek more funding.

The setbacks have forced the district to halt several flagship construction projects in its Reimagining 901 school improvement and facility plan — including a new high school in Frayser.

Earlier this month, MSCS officials also hit back at Strickland for comments linking rising truancy and declining enrollment in MSCS to juvenile crime.

“It’s not just the one problem of getting guns off the streets or tackling truancy — it’s all of it,” McKissack told Chalkbeat on Sept. 7. “We’re operating too much in silos. We should not be making national news time after time.”

After a series of shootings the next day left four people dead and three others wounded, McKissack called for a comprehensive approach to crime and violence in Memphis, suggesting local elected officials should convene an emergency summit to explore solutions collaboratively.

McKissack, a native Memphian and former broadcast journalist, reiterated that call during a press conference on Tuesday. She outlined several priorities for her prospective campaign: improving public safety, expanding public transit, and fighting blight by investing in neighborhoods.

In a nod to her school board experience, McKissack also hinted at the role she believes the city should play in growing the next generation of Memphians. 

She advocated for the city to boost trades training and strengthen after-school and summer programming, arguing that “every child in Memphis should have the opportunity to register for constructive and safe things to do when they are out of the classroom and when their parents are at work.”

McKissack said she will spend the next several weeks conversing with the city’s police and fire associations, as well as local parents, many of whom have lived in fear in recent weeks amid a flareup of violence in Memphis.

“Every person in our city deserves to feel safe,” McKissack said.

With Avant and Bibbs on the County Commission and MSCS’ current board chair considering a mayoral run, Vice Chair Althea Greene said Monday she feels more optimistic about the future of Tennessee’s largest school district.

“Our goals would be attainable, and I would see hope for the district,” said Greene, who also ran for County Commission this spring, but was defeated in the primaries. “I would really feel like we have support here in Memphis-Shelby County Schools.”

(Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Connect with Samantha at [email protected])