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A Memphis school superintendent is under investigation for alleged affairs

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The Memphis-Shelby County School Board announced Thursday that it will launch an external investigation into Superintendent Joris Ray – a day after a news report alleged that Ray had an extramarital relationship, possibly with current and former district employees.

“We have called for a full and complete review of these allegations,” said MSCS Board Chair Michelle McKissack. “If there are allegations of impropriety against the superintendent, the only position we oversee in the school district, then we are sworn to look into those allegations further.”

The Daily Memphian on Wednesday reported that recent documents in Ray’s divorce case say he admitted to having sex outside of marriage with three women. Commercial appeal confirmed on Thursday that the two women named in court documents are currently or have previously worked for the district.

Court filings, copies of which were obtained by Chalkbeat, do not say when the alleged relationship took place, except to refer to a non-disclosure agreement signed by one of the women in January 2004. It is also unclear whether Ray directly supervised one of the women, how long they were in the counties crossed, or how closely they worked together.

In a statement sent through the county’s communications department, Ray said he respects the board of supervisors’ responsibilities and welcomes a “fair investigation into his adherence” to county policy.

“I am confident that my personal actions do not violate any code of conduct or violate any policy,” he said.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McKissac and Board Vice Chair Althea Green said they became aware of the allegations against Ray late Wednesday after they began receiving text and voice messages from the public about the Daily Memphian story. The nine-member board met later in the evening in an emergency executive session and decided to open an investigation on the recommendation of contract legal counsel Herman Morris. (The meeting was not posted on the district’s website or on BoardDocs, the school board’s online agenda management system.)

Ray, who has led Tennessee’s largest school district for three years, will continue to serve as superintendent during the investigation, the board said in a statement Thursday. Once the investigation is complete, the board will determine “next and appropriate steps.”

Until then, the board urged the community to “take your time with judgment and allow due process.”

Council members offered little insight Thursday into the investigation process. McKissack said the board is still working on selecting an independent general counsel to lead it, and she could not yet give an exact timeline for when that would be completed.

“We want to move as quickly as possible, but we also want to be thorough,” McKissack said.

Board members said the results of the investigation will help determine whether the district needs to change its current policy regarding romantic relationships between employees.

According to a district official, the policy “strongly discourages romantic or sexual relationships between a supervisor or other supervisory employee and their employees.” guidelast updated August 2021. It addresses the risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, favoritism, and bias, and requires parties to disclose any relationship to managers.

The policy also states that “given the unequal balance of power in such a relationship, an employee’s consent is suspect and may be viewed by others, or later by the employee, as coerced or intimidated.”

Ray, 48, has faced controversy since the start of his tenure as MSCS leader. He was named superintendent of Memphis schools in April 2019 after the board decided refuse national search.

At the time, board members called Ray, a longtime district employee who had served as interim superintendent for several months, an “extremely qualified candidate” and said a national search was unnecessary and would cost the district valuable time and resources.

However, some Memphians disagreed and protested the appointment. Others expressed concern about sexual harassment complaints filed against Ray months earlier. District investigation concluded there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

In the midst of the pandemic, Wray has clashed with Gov. Bill Lee and GOP leaders over his decision to continue teaching students remotely for most of the 2020-21 school year. But he enjoys the continued support of the school board he receives high marks in his assessments and wounds continuation of the contract until 2025.

And the commission continued to support Ray during the last school year, when he was criticized for the district’s poor performance on the 2021 state standardized tests.

Criticism came to a head last month when two education organizations, Memphis Lift and Whitehaven Empowerment Zone, called for Ray’s resignation.

On Thursday, Sarah Carpenter, Memphis Lift’s executive director, again called for Ray’s resignation and questioned why the board allowed him to continue as superintendent during the investigation.

Green, the board’s vice chairman, said she believes Ray is “innocent until proven guilty.”

“My confidence in Dr. Ray’s leadership has not wavered,” she said. “It’s just being tested.”

Samantha West is a reporter for Chalkbeat Tennessee, where she covers K-12 education in Memphis. Contact Samantha at swest@chalkbeat.org.

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