The board voted 8-0 Tuesday for Williams to take the helm, a recommendation brought forth by vice chair of the board Althea Greene. The vote was the final action of the board in its current composition before new board members are sworn in Wednesday.
“She has shown a tremendous capacity to lead during many uncertainties of a worldwide pandemic,” Greene said, calling Williams a “consummate professional” and “homegrown product” of MSCS.
There were no additional nominations.
Previous coverage: MSCS board to select an interim superintendent Tuesday night
Greene said the board as a whole wanted the interim superintendent be someone who is “not interested in the job” permanently.
“We heard the public,” Greene said during the meeting. “We heard your cry.”
It was not immediately clear whether Williams’ tenure at the helm is indefinite or for specific time period that could require renewal before a permanent successor is found.
Last Tuesday, the board voted for former superintendent Joris Ray to exit the district on several conditions, including a payout of approximately $480,000 and a premature end to the external investigation that was in process, helmed by former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III. No findings were produced for the board, officials said.
It was not immediately clear Tuesday if Williams or the board would select an interim CFO, or if Williams would maintain her cabinet position while leading the district.
Board member Billy Orgel was not present Tuesday.
Deputy superintendents Angela Whitelaw, over academics, and John Barker, over finance and operations, have co-led the district since mid-July when the board voted 7-2 to place Ray on paid leave and ordered an outside investigation into allegations Ray abused power and violated policies.
Last week, board chair Michelle McKissack said the pair were expected to “provide district-level leadership until an interim is named.” She told reporters the board would begin discussions about a process for announcing an interim “in the weeks to come.”
Before the meeting, Greene said she had consulted with the MSCS district’s general counsel to see whether law or policy allowed for two acting superintendents.
Law and policy describes a “director of schools,” she explained.
When posed with the question of more than one superintendent, the Tennessee Department of Education told The Commercial Appeal last week, “Relevant laws regarding the hiring of a director of schools by a Tennessee public school board are below. There is nothing in the law that addresses your question, and we do not provide legal opinions that would be impacted by specific facts.”
The code if provided, 49-2-301, states: “Each local board of education is authorized to employ a director of schools…”
Who is Toni Williams?
Williams, 37, has been the CFO at MSCS since September 2019, when she was hired as the interim in the position before permanently filling the vacancy on Ray’s cabinet by the following month. As of January 2022, Williams earned $183,600 annually, among the higher salaries of cabinet officials.
Details of her contract as interim superintendent, including salary, were not immediately clear Tuesday.
She has yet to operate a typical budget year, with the first burst of federal pandemic dollars rolling in toward the end of her first fiscal year at the helm.
Since then, she has overseen the budget as it has ballooned to more than $2 billion, including, at its largest, nearly $800 million in federal COVID-19 relief cash, all due to be spent within the coming years. She has worked with the board and district officials on spending initiatives, including of capital funds doled out by the Shelby County Commission, where she is among the regular rotation of district officials who present to the funding body.
In nominating Williams Tuesday, Greene also pointed to Williams solving a $58 million budget deficit when arriving at MSCS, saying the cuts had minimal impact to schools.
Williams is a graduate of Whitehaven High School who returned to Memphis after attending college and pursuing a professional career in the Atlanta area.
She worked in the Memphis district’s finance team at the time of the merged district and then the rapid “demerger” of the six municipal districts, according to her LinkedIn profile, before taking a finance position with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
In February 2019, she transitioned back to school finance, becoming the CFO of Millington Municipal Schools for almost a year before returning to MSCS as its CFO.
In the current organizational chart, hers is one of a handful of positions, including the chief of staff and chief of communications, that reports directly to the superintendent position. In previous iterations of the organizational structure, Williams has reported to Barker, the deputy of finance and operations.
The interim superintendent holds a Master‘s of Arts in Accounting from Clark Atlanta University.
What comes next in the search for a new superintendent?
It is unclear if the board will move toward a national search, or hire someone internal. McKissack said last week the district would look into “all avenues in terms of a search, including a national search.”
McKissack said the district plans to find a search firm for a new superintendent, and include the community in the search.
“We all want to see our children succeed and rise up, and someone who is aligned with the culture of Memphis and Shelby County,” she said last Tuesday.
Community members have called for a national search, including Sarah Carpenter of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift. Carpenter criticized board members in 2019 when they made a controversial decision to abandon a national search and hire Ray.
Outgoing member Orgel said last week he did not have an opinion on how the search moves forward but will be watching closely.
His District 8 successor, Amber Huett-Garcia, told The Commercial Appeal before the meeting Tuesday that “what is most important to me is that we have a thoughtful process” for selecting a permanent superintendent. That would look like “what should have happened years ago,” meaning a national search that could include qualified local candidates, Huett-Garcia said.
By placing a candidate without interest in the permanent role in the interim position, as Greene asserted, the board has paved a path forward for local candidates to successfully apply to the top job without board members voting to promote its interim leader, as it did when it drew criticism in 2019 with Ray.
Laura Testino covers education and children’s issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at [email protected] or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: MSCS board taps district’s CFO Toni Williams as interim superintendent