Tennessee Rep. Justin Pearson backs group banned from Memphis school board meetings
“School Board Five” members protest lack of progress in superintendent search, allege violation of their First Amendment rights
Damon Curry Morris, second from left, Rachael Spriggs, third from left, and Tikeila Rucker, fourth from right, at a June 9 press conference in Memphis to address their banning from school property after speaking at a school board meeting. Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, is at far right. (Photo: Theryn Bond)
Friday afternoon, state Rep. Justin Pearson, D-Memphis, joined four of the five community activists banned from Memphis-Shelby County School property, as the group attempted to enter a school board retreat.
Known as the “School Board Five,” Tikeila Rucker, LJ Abraham, Damon Curry Morris and Rachael Spriggs, reiterated their calls for accountability, integrity, and transparency in the latest MSCS superintendent search at the press conference — and expressed their dissatisfaction and concern with the violation of their First Amendment rights.
“Memphis Shelby County Schools educates roughly 110,000 students and employs nearly 14,000 people, all whom are currently without leadership from a permanent superintendent,” said Tikeila Rucker, political director of Memphis For All.
The five — Amber Sherman, the fifth member, did not attend Friday’s press conference — were banned following a rowdy May 9 school board meeting during which parents of MSCS children and education advocates vocally expressed frustration with the search process and disrupted the meeting with what school officials characterize as “panic alarms.”
The school district launched the search for a new superintendent shortly after former superintendent Joris Ray resigned in August 2022 amid abuse of power allegations. The original timeline specified that a superintendent be in place by May 2023, with a later adjustment for the top administrator to start prior to the beginning of the 2023-24 school year. That deadline now looks unlikely to be met.
Rucker, the former president of United Education Association of Shelby County — the local affiliate of the Tennessee Education Association — called the unlikelihood of a new superintendent being in place by the start of the next school year “a deeply concerning issue that is plaguing our community.”
Memphis Shelby County Schools educates roughly 110,000 students and employs nearly 14,000 people, all whom are currently without leadership from a permanent superintendent.
– Tikeila Rucker, Memphis For All
Spriggs, who works with MSCS as a consultant on equity issues, questioned pauses in the search process and a perceived lack of transparency by board members, asking if district leaders are “hiding something.”
Group members dispute the rationale for being banned.
“I was not involved in any disruptive action on May 9. I showed up and spoke to board members regarding the superintendent search,”said Rucker, while Morris said she wasn’t at the meeting.
“Silencing citizens who dare to speak out, this ban poses a threat to the very essence of democracy,” Spriggs said.
Pearson, who has spoken with Board Chair Althea Greene, said on Friday “we need to have more people that are angelic dissenters” and that “a ban that has happened without a policy in place is part of the problem.” He called the “School Board Five” “people of good conscience and good will.”
The “School Board Five” are requesting the bans be rescinded along with getting a written and public apology from MSCS Board members and leadership involved with their expulsions.
“Together we can make sure our communities thrive and the spirit of democracy prevails,” said Abraham.
Group members have retained Ben Gastel of Nashville-based Branstetter Stranch & Jennings and Memphis lawyer Scott Kramer as legal counsel.
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