External investigation into Joris Ray still ongoing, MSCS board member says

The external investigation into Memphis-Shelby County Schools superintendent Joris Ray remains ongoing, a board member told The Commercial Appeal, meaning the board's vote Tuesday night could come without any public findings.

Longtime school board member Billy Orgel told The Commercial Appeal the board would not release findings of the external investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Edward L. Stanton III, at the Tuesday meeting.

"No, the investigation's not complete," Orgel told a reporter at Memphis City Hall Tuesday afternoon.

Stanton has not responded to a status inquiry The Commercial Appeal sent Tuesday morning.

The MSCS board is poised to vote on Ray's employment with the district in a special called meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Orgel's comment indicates the vote could occur without public release of investigation findings. It is unclear whether the board has received updates from Stanton throughout the investigation.

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Ray has been on paid leave since July 13 when the board also voted to conduct an external investigation into allegations of abuses of power and policy violations during his tenure as superintendent, which began in an interim capacity in December 2018.

If Ray is terminated for cause, he is owed no pay,  according to his current contract.

Removing Ray "for cause" is a rationale that requires "proof of material breach of any provision of this contract, violation of any BOARD policy and/or violation of any State, local or federal law," his contract specifies.

If the board unilaterally decides to terminate a contract, Ray is owed 15 days notice in most instances. He is owed the lesser of 18 months of severance, or the balance of the contract, as well as benefits he would have earned. His base salary is at least $293,000 and is eligible for increases.

Ray's contract ends Jan. 1, 2025, meaning that as of Aug. 23, 2022, he has nearly two-and-a-half years left on his contract. For Ray, 18 months of pay is approximately $439,500, and the payout in the contract also stipulates Ray is paid "benefits he would have earned and been entitled to receive under this contract."

If Ray is terminated through this option in his contract, he "shall be deemed to have resigned from the position or other employment with the Shelby County Schools as of the effective date of the unilateral termination."

If Ray elects to leave his post, he has to give 60 days notice and receives no severance pay.

Robert L. J. Spence, Jr., attorney for Ray in his divorce filings, is also representing Ray in matters of employment, a member of Spence's office told The Commercial Appeal by phone Tuesday morning.

Board Member Billy Orgel during the Shelby County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.
Board Member Billy Orgel during the Shelby County School Board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019.

Ray's contract outlines that if the board launches a superintendent search, it does not mean the seat is vacant or that Ray is entitled to a buyout.

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Orgel, a longtime school district board member in Memphis, did not run for re-election this year, paving the way for Amber Huett-Garcia to become the board member for District 8, which encompasses East Memphis and, after recent re-districting, a portion of northeast Shelby County.

In a controversial move, the school board in April 2019 voted for Ray, then interim superintendent, to be hired permanently, forgoing a national search.

Orgel did not indicate whether the board will vote to terminate Ray's contract Tuesday evening.

Posed with a hypothetical about new future leadership for the district, Orgel said the decision will be left to the new board. Incoming board members are sworn in at the end of this month.

"I have no opinion on it because I'm not going to be there anymore," Orgel said.

He later added: "You've got two choices: You can hire from within or you can do a national search."

Orgel said he will be watching the decisions of the incoming board.

"I hope we have a good one," Orgel said, "because it'd be good for the system to have somebody to continue lifting the students."

Samuel Hardiman covers Memphis city government and politics for The Commercial Appeal. He can be reached by email at samuel.hardiman@commercialappeal.com or followed on Twitter at @samhardiman.

Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at laura.testino@commercialappeal.com or 901-512-3763. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Joris Ray external investigation still ongoing, MSCS board member says