election time

Here’s who’s running for Memphis school board in August

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Fifteen people are vying for four seats on the Memphis school board. The election is Aug. 2.

After a relatively quiet school board race in Memphis two years ago, this year’s run promises a lot of action as 15 people vie for four seats.

Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest school system, is stabilizing its finances and setting a course for how schools are managed, so the winners will have significant impact on how the district proceeds.

The election, set for Aug. 2, is likely to draw in hefty funds from organizations that favor charter schools and more school autonomy as the Memphis district decides how to bolster low-performing schools and manage several school types.

Some board members and the superintendent they hired, Dorsey Hopson, say they support a transition to a system where school districts operate schools more like charters, giving them more autonomy. But they have at times worked to undermine such a transition, often referring to charter schools as negative competition.

And the school board has often been at odds with the Tennessee Department of Education, which has in recent years handed over about two dozen Memphis schools to charter operators.

In the midst of that, the district is recovering from years of severe budget cuts. Last year, for the first time since the merger of county and city school districts, Shelby County Schools started its budget process without a shortfall.

Of the five seats that were open in 2016, only one was contested, but incumbent Stephanie Love won it. The school board race is non-partisan and therefore does not have a primary election.

Here are the candidates running in district 1, which covers downtown and parts of Midtown:

  • Katherine Ayers is a cancer education program manager at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital who previously taught seventh grade science at Hutchison, an all-girls private school. Her work at St. Jude includes programs that focus on reducing health and education disparities in the Memphis area. She also has two children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Chris Caldwell, the incumbent, is a financial consultant and vice president at Raymond James, a financial services firm. A White Station High School graduate, he was originally appointed to the board in 2011, and was elected in 2012 and 2014. He serves as the budget committee chair and was chairman of the board last year, helping to oversee the investigation into improper grade changing in the district. He has three children; two have graduated from Memphis public schools and one is a junior at Central High School.
  • Michelle Robinson McKissack is editor at Memphis Parent Magazine and is on the board of directors for Crosstown High School, a charter school opening this fall focused on project-based learning. She is also an inaugural member of the state Department of Education parent advisory council created in 2016. She’s a graduate of White Station High School and has four children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Michael Scruggs, a Central High School graduate, is a social studies teacher at W.E.B. DuBois Schools, a charter school network, and was featured on The Ellen Show and others last year for his daily motivational chant with students.

Four candidates are running in district 6, which covers Whitehaven and southwest Memphis:

  • Shante Avant, the incumbent, is the board’s current chairwoman and a deputy director for the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. Last year as chair of the board’s procurement committee, Avant oversaw the district’s disparity study for contracts with businesses owned by women and people of color. She has a daughter enrolled at Bellevue Middle School.
  • Roderic Ford is also running for a state House seat and formerly ran for county clerk.
  • Minnie Hunter (no further information available).
  • Percy Hunter, a Fairley High School alum, is the pastor of Christ United Baptist Church. He was recently the parent and community engagement coordinator for Green Dot Public Schools, a California-based charter network that operates four state-controlled schools in Memphis.

District 8, which includes East Memphis, Berclair, and Cordova, is the least crowded race with just one challenger for the incumbent:

  • Jerry Cunningham is a retired Memphis City Schools teacher and former commercial real estate broker and business owner. He has also taught at HopeWorks, a nonprofit adult education program, since retiring. He said the school board needs “a fresh group of citizens who are dissatisfied with the stagnant progress under [Superintendent] Dorsey Hopson’s guidance, and who believe our city’s students are capable of achieving proficient scores on standardized tests.”
  • Billy Orgel, the incumbent, is the CEO of Tower Ventures, a company that builds and owns telecommunication towers in Memphis. He has served on the board since 2012 and has served as board chairman twice. As chair of the board’s facilities committee, Orgel has overseen several school openings and closures, and helped guide the district’s facility maintenance needs. He attended Richland Elementary and is a graduate of the independent Memphis University School. He has three children.

Five candidates are seeking the district 9 seat, which includes Orange Mound and Parkway Village areas:

  • Rhonnie Brewer leads Socially Twisted Media and is the founder of Memphis Startup, a which provides resources and support to small businesses. She also co-hosts the “What’s Happening Myron Show,” a show about news, current events, and entertainment on Shelby County Schools’ radio station, 88.5 FM.
  • Alvin Crook is a special officer at Memphis Light, Gas and Water. He serves on the Downtown Parking Authority and is a representative for the Tennessee Young Democrats and a former president of the Shelby County Young Democrats. He has one son.
  • Joyce Dorse-Coleman is a secretary at Apostolic Pentecostal Temple Church and has served as an officer for several parent volunteer organizations at schools where her seven children and five grandchildren were students. She also served on a committee formed to successfully keep Dunbar Elementary School from closing.
  • Kori Hamner is a former Memphis teacher, teacher coach with Teach for America, and later a director of teacher support with Shelby County Schools during a time of massive changes in state standards. She now works for the Achievement Network where she advises school districts and charter management organizations around the nation on their curriculum, assessment, and professional development strategy. She has one daughter.
  • Mike Kernell, the incumbent, has served on the board since 2014. He is a Messick High School graduate and served in the state legislature for nearly 40 years. His two children attended public schools.

This story has been updated to include Rhonnie Brewer, whose approval from the Shelby County Election Commission was not reflected in the commission’s initial listing Friday morning.

Correction, April 6, 2018: One of Chris Caldwell’s children is still in high school. A previous version of this story said all three of his children had graduated from Memphis public schools. 

New leader

District chief Joris Ray named Memphis schools’ interim leader

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Joris Ray, center, was appointed interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

Joris Ray, who started his 22-year career as a teacher in Memphis schools, will be the interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

The school board voted 5-4 Tuesday evening to appoint Ray, who as a member of Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s cabinet oversees the district’s academic operations and student support. An audience composed mostly of educators applauded the announcement.

“A lot of people call Dr. Ray, and he gets things done,” Hopson said at the meeting.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Dorsey Hopson and Joris Ray, right.

Ray could be at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for anywhere from 8 months to 18 months, as the board looks to hire a permanent leader, Board Chair Shante Avant said. Hopson is leaving the 200-school, 111,600-student district after nearly six years; he will lead an education initiative at the health insurer Cigna, effective Jan. 8.

Hopson will still help Ray transition into his new role a few weeks after his resignation takes effect because of his current contract terms.

Ray, a graduate of Whitehaven High School, said he intends to apply for the permanent position.

“I’m about pushing things forward. No sense in looking back,” told reporters Tuesday, noting that his goal, as he gets started, is “to listen, to get out to various community groups and transition with the superintendent … but also I want to talk to teachers and I want to talk to students because oftentimes they’re left out of the education process.”

The other two nominees to serve as interim superintendent were Lin Johnson, the district’s chief of finance, and Carol Johnson, a former superintendent of Memphis schools.

Hopson commended both Lin Johnson and Ray as “truly my brothers in this work.” He also acknowledged the work Carol Johnson has done in recent years to train teachers in her role as director of New Leaders in Memphis.

Some school board members wanted to preclude the interim appointee from applying for the permanent post — especially if the interim selection was an in-district hire — but a resolution formalizing that position failed in a 6-3 vote.

“If it were me… I’d think twice about going up against that person to take the job. I really would,” Teresa Jones, a board member, said. But she said she wants to create an environment “where individuals feel where they can come forward and apply” for the superintendent job.

The appointment comes one day after Hopson presented a plan to combine 28 aging school buildings into 10 new ones. Ray said he will look to get community input before pursuing the plan while he is at the helm.

“We need to continue to unpack the plan,” Ray said after the meeting. “And I rely on the community to get their input. But most of all, it’s what’s best for students.”

There’s more from the meeting in this Twitter thread:

Movers and shakers

These Colorado lawmakers will shape education policy in 2019

PHOTO: Joe Amon/The Denver Post
Colorado House of Representatives

When the Colorado General Assembly convenes in January, Democrats will control both chambers for the first time since 2014. That shift in the balance of power, along with a lot of turnover in both chambers, means new faces on the committees that will shape education policy.

The incoming committee chairs in both chambers  — state Rep. Barbara McLachlan of Durango and state Sen. Nancy Todd of Aurora — are former teachers themselves and experienced lawmakers. One of the incoming members, representative-elect Bri Buentello of Pueblo, is currently a special education teacher. The ranking Republican on the House Education Committee, state Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida, is also a former teacher and school superintendent. He’s the only Republican returning to the committee from the previous session.

In the House, Democrats now hold a three-seat majority on the committees responsible for deciding which bills will advance to a floor vote. In the Senate, Democrats have a one-vote advantage on most committees.

The new Democratic majorities open the possibility of advancing issues that once stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate, like funding full-day kindergarten — a priority of incoming governor Jared Polis — and expanding access to mental health services in school. But these decisions will have to be made without major new revenue and in competition with other budget needs. Democrats may also have to grapple with disagreements among their own ranks on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and school choice, issues that have long enjoyed bipartisan consensus. 

But one newly appointed member of the Senate Education Committee won’t serve out his term. State Sen. Daniel Kagan, a Democrat from Cherry Hills Village, recently announced he’ll resign in January following accusations that he repeatedly used a women’s restroom in the state Capitol. State Rep. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, has announced his intention to seek the vacancy and could take Kagan’s place on the education committee.

The other new Democrat on the Senate committee, Tammy Story, has a long record as an education advocate in Jefferson County. She worked to recall school board members there that supported charters and performance-based teacher pay.

Senator-elect Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument, is a former member of the State Board of Education and served on the House Education Committee. State Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, the ranking Republican on the committee, is the former chair.

House Education Committee:


Chair: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango

Vice-Chair, rep.-elect Bri Buentello, Pueblo

Rep. Janet Buckner, Aurora

Rep. James Coleman, Denver

Rep.-elect Lisa Cutter, Jefferson County

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Julie McCluskie, Dillon

Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City


Ranking member: Rep. Jim Wilson, Salida

Rep.-elect Mark Baisley, Roxborough Park

Rep.-elect Tim Geitner, Colorado Springs

Rep.-elect Colin Larson, Ken Caryl

Rep. Kim Ransom, Littleton

Senate Education Committee:


Chair: Nancy Todd, Aurora

Vice-Chair: sen.-elect Tammy Story, Conifer

Sen. Daniel Kagan, Cherry Hills Village


Ranking member: Sen. Owen Hill, Colorado Springs

Sen.-elect Paul Lundeen, Monument