Joris Ray, the superintendent of Memphis-Shelby County Schools, has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an external inquiry, the board stated on Thursday.
MSCS board chair Michelle McKissack issued a statement saying, “We have called for a comprehensive and complete examination into these claims.” Our sworn duty as school board members is to investigate any charges of misconduct against the school district’s single superintendent.
In recent divorce proceedings, Ray admitted to having sexual contact with three women, according to the Daily Memphian on Wednesday. It was confirmed on Thursday by the Commercial Appeal that two of those identified in the court records are or have been employed by the district.
A nondisclosure agreement signed by one of the women in January 2004 is the only reference to the alleged interactions in the court files uncovered by Chalkbeat. As far as Ray was concerned, it isn’t clear if he directly supervised each woman or how closely they worked together.
By way of the district’s communications office, Ray said he appreciates the board of education’s monitoring role and welcomes “a fair review of his adherence” to district standards.
That’s why I am certain that my private acts have not broken any standards of conduct or violated any policies,” he stated.
It wasn’t until they started receiving texts and voicemails from the public about the Daily Memphian report that McKissack and board vice chair Althea Greene learned about the allegations against Ray, according to their statements to Chalkbeat in an exclusive interview.
When the board assembled for an extraordinary executive session later that night on the recommendation of contracted legal counsel Herman Morris, they decided to initiate an investigation. (Neither the district’s website nor the school board’s online agenda management system, BoardDocs, made the meeting’s content available.)
The school board announced Thursday that Ray, who has been superintendent of Tennessee’s largest school district for the past three years, will remain in his position during the investigation. The board will consider the “next and necessary steps” after the investigation is concluded.
After that, the board advised the community “to refrain from drawing conclusions and to wait for the outcome of the investigation to be known.”
On Thursday, the board of directors gave very little information about the inquiry process. When asked about a timetable for the selection of independent legal counsel, McKissack said the board is still in the process of doing so and couldn’t yet provide one.
McKissack stated, “We want to go swiftly, but we also want to be comprehensive.”
The findings of the probe will assist determine if the district’s current policy on amorous connections between employees needs to be changed, board members said.
According to the employee handbook of the school district, which was most recently revised in the month of August 2021, the policy “highly forbids romantic or sexual interactions between a manager or other supervisory employee and their personnel.” It warns of the potential for actual or apparent conflicts of interest, favouritism, and bias, and it mandates that all parties disclose any relationships they have with the managers.
A further provision of the policy reads that “given the uneven balance of power within such relationships, permission by the staff member is suspicious and may be seen by others, or at a later period by the staff member themselves, as having been granted as the result of coercion or intimidation.”
Since the beginning of his term as leader of MSCS, Ray, who is now 48 years old, has been mired in controversy. In April of 2019, he was given the position of chief of Memphis schools, after the board of education made the decision to forego a nationwide search.
A national search was deemed unnecessary by the board members at the time because they believed that Ray, a longtime employee of the district who had been serving as interim superintendent for several months, was a “extremely qualified candidate.” They also believed that conducting a national search would cost the district valuable time and resources.
However, there were Memphis residents who did not agree with the selection and who demonstrated against it. Concern was voiced by others over allegations of sexual harassment that had been brought against Ray several months earlier. An investigation conducted at the district level came to the conclusion that there was no proof of any misconduct.
Ray’s choice to keep kids learning remotely for much of the 2020-21 school year caused him to come into conflict with Governor Bill Lee and other leaders of the Republican Party while the epidemic was at its peak. However, he has been given unwavering backing by the school board, which has resulted in him obtaining high ratings in his assessments and an early contract extension through the year 2025.
And even though Ray took a lot of heat during the most recent school year for the district’s dismal academic performance on state standardised tests, the board remained steadfast in its support of him throughout the entire year.
A month ago, the criticism reached a boiling point when two school advocacy organisations, Memphis Lift and Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, requested Ray to resign from his position as superintendent.
On Thursday, Sarah Carpenter, the executive director of Memphis Lift, issued a new call for Ray to resign and questioned why the board allowed him to continue serving as superintendent while the investigation was ongoing. Carpenter also questioned why the board allowed him to continue receiving pay for his position.
Greene, the vice chair of the board, has stated that she believes Ray to be “innocent until proven guilty.”
She stated that her faith in Dr. Ray’s ability to lead the organisation had not been affected by the recent events. “We are just putting it through its paces.”