Memphis-Shelby County School Board candidates face challenges to system

By: - August 3, 2022 7:01 am
East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

East High School in Memphis. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)

Memphis-Shelby County School Board races remain nonpartisan, unlike 59 other Tennessee counties, with four seats up for election. 

Board members will have several challenges to address: Students in Memphis, a majority-minority city, were some of the hardest hit by the pandemic economically and academically. School closures due to remote learning, COVID-case surges and teacher shortages led to students falling behind. Only one in 10 Memphis students from 3rd through 12th grades performed at or above grade level in math and English in 2021, compared to one in five in 2019.  

On average, three in 10 students are meeting grade-level expectations in English language arts and one in four is on grade level in math. In comparison, one in seven economically-disadvantaged students is meeting grade level expectations in ELA and one in 10 is meeting grade level in math, according to the statistics from the Tennessee Department of Education.

The district have also been disrupted by violence and school officials seek to spend $5.5 million on safety and security upgrades.

The Tennessee Lookout contacted  candidates from each of the four districts for their takes on how school board races now reflect the many challenges arising from the pandemic. Most candidates responded; a few did not and are noted in the story.

District 1: Incumbent Michelle McKissack faces Rachael Goodwin Spriggs and Chris Caldwell.

Michelle McKissack

McKissack is an award-winning journalist, former editor of the Memphis Parent magazine and worked as a news anchor and reporter in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. She is currently serving as chairwoman of the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board. She was first elected in 2018.

McKissack did not respond to requests for information.

Rachael Goodwin Spriggs

Spriggs has over 15 years of experience in education and advocacy and currently works as an independent consultant with Memphis-Shelby County Schools in research management. Spriggs and her husband also founded the mentorship program, G.A.M.E Changers 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Spriggs: On a state level, Tennessee’s K-12 public schools will transition to a new student based funding formula (Tennessee Investment In Student Achievement). TISA generates nearly $1 billion more than the previous funding formula which was a resource-based formula that calculates costs largely based on total enrollment in each district opposed to base funding per pupil plus additional allocations for students with specific characteristics or needs. In addition, we have the launch of the state-funded voucher program being made available in Memphis and Nashville. 

On a local level, the superintendent (Joris Ray) is suspended with pay, pending the findings of an investigation for alleged misconduct. State scores are in, showing that the 11% success rate increased by 6% to a 17% success rate. The findings also show disparity in the data among sub-groups.

This School Board race is special because we have an open seat due to Miska Bibbs winning her primary for Shelby County commissioner. We have William Orgel whose seat came open due to him not filing a petition, which allowed Amber Huett to run an uncontested race. This race has the opportunity to change the face of the board and really give it the fresh leadership that is needed.

(Editor’s note: Memphis-Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray has been suspended during an investigation of allegations he had romantic relationships with direct reports.)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Spriggs: Pandemic-related challenges, battles over Critical Race Theory, banning certain books from school libraries, policies towards transgender students and LGBTQ+ students, teacher vacancies, decline in student enrollment are all occurences and events that have changed school board elections. Many of these issues have civil rights connections/angles.The amount of federal funding brought to local school boards for relief and how the money was spent has allowed the general public to become more aware of the importance of being informed around who is being elected to serve on the school board.

Q: How can school officials begin to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students?

Spriggs: We have to really begin to embed mental health in our curriculums and the “way” that we “do” school. We have to focus on non-academic supports and comprehensive wrap-around services that take in consideration the need to partner with community stakeholders. I think that as we make these decisions to embed mental health in the “way” that we “do” school, we also have to consider giving teachers and schools more autonomy. Giving autonomy and providing effective teacher support allows us to better serve children with a variety of needs. This approach also increases morale that has significantly declined. When school staff feel supported and valued, the climate and culture of schools will become more conducive to teaching and learning.

Chris Caldwell

Caldwell is the president of investments at Raymond James & Associates and previously served on the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board from 2010 to 2018.

Caldwell did not respond to requests for information. 

District 6: Incumbent Charles Everett faces Tim Green, Kenneth Lee, David Page, Tiffani Perry and Keith Williams.

Charles Everett

Everett is on the board of directors for the Greater Whitehaven Economic Redevelopment Corporation and the Uplift Westwood Community Development Corporation, serves on the United Way of Greater Memphis Allocations Committee and is an advisory council member for the Tennessee Department of Education Coordinated School Health. Everett is also a technical principal at FedEx and has worked for the company for 40 years. 

Everett was appointed in March to replace longtime board member Shante Avant, who resigned from the position in February. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Everett:  Each candidate brings a unique set of credentials, and those have been on display in several candidate forums that have been held over the past few weeks.  

This race encompasses some of the most politically active voters in the city of Memphis.  It also encompasses a district that has lost a large number of schools due to closures, which have negatively impacted some of the neighborhoods.  The successful candidate in this race has an opportunity to make a lasting impact on the schools in the district by shaping policies and decisions that can revive neighborhood pride, increase academic achievement, improve access to extracurricular activities, and improve family-school relationships.

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Everett: Some locales have adopted partisan elections for school board members, which has added an additional layer of politics into the elections. Educating children, which is everyone’s responsibility, should not be reduced to partisan politics. Partisan school board elections may begin to take on the form of national politics. Social media, as well as the pandemic, have been driving influencers on school board elections, turning masking policies and public comment into arenas of discourse.

Q: How can school officials begin to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students?

Everett: School officials are going to have to rethink and reshape the instruction.  Class sizes must be reduced, the workload on teachers has to be reduced as well.  Teachers have to be made to be more of a part of curriculum building and decision making to allow them to be a more integral part of the process. Teacher salaries and the impact of state mandated testing need to be addressed — salary increases, and less emphasis on state testing, and more emphasis on classroom instruction.

Tim Green

Green founded the Dividend an organization that teaches young boys of color leadership skills, and the Memphis Restorative Justice Coalition, an organization that seeks to decrease the amount of suspensions and expulsions in Shelby County. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Green: The District 6 race is unique because the former school board member resigned earlier this year. Most of us also interviewed for the appointment, so this campaign season started in February for me. For me, this race is special because I grew up in the neighborhood and worked for schools in the area. I have used my youth programming and experiential learning background to create programs that engage students around their social and emotional wellbeing. Winning this seat will be a win for teachers dedicated to serving the whole child. 

Candidate for the Memphis-Shelby County Schools board District 6 Tim Green
Tim Green. (Photo:

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Green: In Shelby County, it was decided that our races will remain nonpartisan for now; however, some of our school board district maps have changed. Therefore, we have been working to ensure all voters are being reached and know their proper district. I believe more people are now paying attention to school board races due to emerging state laws that tremendously impact education. 

Q: How can school officials begin to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students?

Green:  It is one of my priorities to implement a policy that ensures Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER)  funds have been and are being used to enrich the education experience that MSCS offers to its students and families. These funds should prepare our students for college, apprenticeship programs, and trade schools, expand pre-kindergarten programs, update technology, and support our teachers through initiatives that lessen the workload, address teacher-to-student class ratios, and better pay. Additionally, It is no secret that the district needed to improve before the pandemic, so we must be purposeful when addressing learning gaps and the mental health needs of our students, school staff, and families. 

Tiffani Perry

Perry served as public information officer for Shelby County Schools and worked alongside the Office of Academics, leading to the creation of the 3rd Grade Commitment and #Commit2Literacy campaigns. 

Q: What is going on in this race? 

Perry: The race for School Board in Memphis is happening during a critical time in Shelby County. As the only woman, and only mom in my race, it is critical now more than ever that we elect leadership that can make swift and sound decisions to do what is in the best interest of children and their future and not in the best interest of self and politics. A “Students FIRST” mentality is needed from the top down to turn this district around.“

Q: What makes this school board race special?

Perry: This school board race is special to me because I am running to represent the district that I grew up in, and I have ties to each of the neighborhoods I am looking to serve. My family is from the South Memphis/Riverside communities. I went to elementary school in Westwood and graduated from Whitehaven High School, the largest high school in the Whitehaven Community.  It is special to me because running in this race is affording me the opportunity to give back to the community that gave so much to me growing up. At a time when public schools are declining, teacher shortages are cause for concern, and school buildings are literally crumbling from years of deferred maintenance, it is important that we have articulate and competent leadership that can work with state and local officials to turn our public schools around.

Tiffani Perry. (Tiffanie Perry campaign Facebook)
Tiffani Perry. (Tiffanie Perry campaign Facebook)

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Perry: In Shelby County, the pandemic has heightened the need for change.  Student test scores were failing prior to the pandemic and are still failing, teacher workloads are steadily increasing while pay is not moving, Inconsistent direction from district leadership continues to be a struggle and parent and student engagement as a result of pandemic trauma continue to be areas of concern. But even with all these issues, school boards will require leaders who are equipped to address and fix these problems as you can’t fix what you don’t face with transparency and integrity.  I think the public is seeking genuine leaders and not career politicians to step in and just get the job done for our children.

Q: How can school officials begin to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students?

Perry: We must take a look at teacher workloads quickly and address their evaluation processes as in many cases, the evaluations are unfair and not equitable. Our teachers in Shelby County have a tougher evaluation than the superintendent who is getting paid far more money to ensure the success of our district. Teachers need to be allowed to focus on delivering curriculum and instruction and the overall development of the children they are serving. Teachers and school counselors should be at the table developing the solutions to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students as they are the boots on the ground. 

We need to provide more mental health resources in schools full time to best support school leaders in real time with students who may still be struggling. School districts should also seek more community partners to provide wraparound services to support families still dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

Kenneth Lee

Lee has no available campaign page but formerly worked as a Deputy Court Clerk to Juvenile Court Clerk Janis Fullilove. 

Lee could not be reached for comment.

David Page 

Page has no information available online, nor did he respond to inquiries.

Keith Williams

Williams is the executive director of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. He is also a career educator, having taught in Knoxville City Schools, West Memphis Schools and Memphis City Schools.

He ran unsuccessfully for County Commission in 2010 and Memphis City Council in 2012. 

Williams could not be reached.

District 8: Amber Huett-Garcia faces no opposition.

Huett-Garcia taught third grade at Ross Elementary School before becoming policy advisory to the Memphis-Shelby County Office of Education. She worked for the Tennessee Department of Education and now serves as director of business development at Lemonada Media, a podcast network. 

Q: What is going on in this race? What makes this school board race special?

Huett-Garcia: I am the candidate in the uncontested race for District 8, which covers mostly East Memphis and parts of unincorporated Shelby County. Right now, the attention is on leadership in the district as the new board will likely be facing decisions after the investigation of Superintendent Joris Ray concludes after we are seated and potentially after we are sworn in. The timeline for the investigation has not been shared yet. 

Q: How have the events of the past few years changed school board elections?

Huett-Garcia: While the pandemic contributed to academic achievement backsliding, it also brought unprecedented resources, mainly from federal relief money. We’ll need to make sure that we’re focusing on spending that well in a way that helps our students make gains and supports families. We have to do so sustainably as we face a huge funding cliff in about a year when funds expire. The pandemic didn’t cause many of the challenges we see today. Still, it certainly highlighted and/or exacerbated them, including low wages, insufficient transportation, poor healthcare access and coverage, huge gaps in our social safety net, childcare, and more. 

Q: How can school officials begin to lessen the effects of the pandemic on school staff and students?

Huett-Garcia: As a result, I think the district will have to be hyper-focused on building a great K-12 system and bringing in as many people to the table as possible to support all that we need to accomplish in pre-K, early childhood, and wrap-around supports, mental health, and more. We are positioned to match students, teachers, staff, and families with resources while creating a strategic plan to scale things that are getting positive results or adjust when things are not working. I’m looking forward to serving.

District 9: Incumbent Joyce Dorse-Coleman faces Rebecca Edwards.

Joyce Dorse-Coleman

Dorse-Coleman has served on the school board for four years and is the chairperson for the Parent Teacher Organization and Parent Teacher Association at several schools. 

She did not respond to requests for information.

Rebecca Edwards

Edwards is the founder of Cultural Arts for Everyone, an organization that provides diverse artistic experiences for underserved communities.

Edwards could not be reached by publication time.

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Dulce Torres Guzman
Dulce Torres Guzman

Dulce has written for the Nashville Scene and Crucero News. A graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, she received the John Seigenthaler Award for Outstanding Graduate in Print Journalism in 2016. Torres Guzman is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. She enjoys the outdoors and is passionate about preserving the environment and environmental issues.