JC Bowman Discusses Shelby County Schools Superintendent’s Firing and the Problems with Jamming Through ESAs

Live from Music Row Monday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Professional Educators of Tennessee Executive Director and CEO JC Bowman to the newsmaker line to discuss the recent firing of Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joris Ray and the pitfalls of jamming through Educational Savings Accounts to parents and students

Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker line right now by our very good friend JC Bowman, the president of Professional Educators of Tennessee. Good morning, JC.

Bowman: Good morning, Michael. How are you doing today?

Leahy: I miss having you here, here in-studio, but you’ve got a very busy schedule. You’re the expert on what’s going on in K-12 public education in Tennessee.

What on Earth happened down in Shelby County with the superintendent of schools there who just resigned under a cloud? Tell us about that situation.

Bowman: Yes, absolutely. One of the things that happened, number one, he got divorced. And what ended up happening is in the divorce papers, apparently, he had had affairs, allegedly with three employees that he supervised.

So he’s been suspended. Subsequently, the school board negotiated a buyout of his contract, giving him – and keep in mind, he was making over $300,000 a year – but they basically gave him $450,000 to go away.

(Leahy laughs) But what’s unusual about this is that now they’re hiring him back as a service consultant for the hire of the next superintendent.

Leahy: Are you kidding me?

Bowman: No. That’s one of the things that nobody has actually broken into. The Daily Memphian actually called me on that. And I mean, I can’t say it’s unethical. I think that depends on the definition of who’s pushing ethics, but it’s certainly inappropriate. I don’t know any other way to say it.

The school board technically only has one job, and that is to hire, to manage, the superintendent of schools, and then they’re hiring the previous superintendent to help them select the next guy. It’s odd. And when you lose trust in your institutions like that, that is just a bad path forward for Shelby County schools.

Leahy: The guy’s name is Joris Ray. How did he get the gig to begin with?

Bowman: He was the lawyer for the previous superintendent, Dorsey Hopson. And Dorsey resigned abruptly, went into consulting with another manufacturer, some company out there, and I think a hospital, actually, on diversity issues and making actually more money. So he was the attorney for the system and he just stepped into that position.

Leahy: This is not exactly what you call an example of moral leadership. (Chuckles)

Bowman: And you know what? This sends a message to your teacher. I’m always talking either way, but we get this painted to us and we go, well, this is a school board decision – we keep blaming other entities and everything.

And I go, this is a school board that is failing. Now, in fairness, some of these people are – one of them I think I voted off, and the next one. And there’s a new school board coming in September, so they could in turn say, look, Joris, thank you for your time. Hit the road.

Leahy: Hit the road, Dr. Joris Ray.

Bowman: I don’t know if he’s a doctor. I think he’s just an attorney. It’s interesting. And then they want to go do a national search and of course, obviously he’s in the middle of it. But if that position was there and they put it online, people are going to come flocking to get $300,000 a year, number one. But there are people in Tennessee. There’s Marlon King in Jackson, right next to [Memphis], who is doing a great job.

I mean, he’s turned that school system around a lot and restructured it; African American gentleman, does great work. He’s kind of a reformer within the system. He’s a good person.

There’s a lady, Dr. Gilmore in Charleston, South Carolina, that has led the school turnaround effort there – they are now one of the top performing districts right outside of Charleston – who is a Memphis native and lived there for years and has come back. So those are two front runners that, if Jordis Ray is involved in it, they probably don’t even consider the job.

Leahy: He’s a 1992 graduate of Whitehaven High School, and got his bachelor’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Memphis. So apparently he has a doctorate in something.

Bowman: Yes, there you go. We’re sitting here going, but Memphis – I’ll give him some credit. He was doing some good things over there, some things that needed to be fixed. Memphis is just constantly evolving.

We need to get that system on track, because if you get Memphis fixed, and you get the Nashville public schools fixed, the two school systems alone would drive Tennessee to the middle of every kind of ranking that you could ever imagine …

Leahy: JC, you said something that I don’t think is possible. If you get the public school system in Shelby County and Davidson County fixed – they’re going in the wrong direction. There’s one element going on right now.

The Education Savings Account program is in effect in Davidson County and in Shelby County for selected individuals who earn under $65,000 a year.

There are now reports that I think at least 50 of the applications have been approved, and I think there’s 40 schools that are taking them. Explain the Education Savings Account program, and why is it taking so long for it to take off?

Bowman: Well, a couple of things. Number one, they’re rushing the program out, because it’s going to be fraught with lawsuits for the next decade, people coming in. But basically, the money flows with the child and they can move it.

But Michael, the money that goes to the child is $7,500. Here’s the problem: It costs $10,000 to get into some of the lower-level schools that are accepting these schoolchildren.

So basically, there’s a huge differential for the parent who is usually very poor and cannot afford the extra $2,500. So they tried to figure out how to game that system on the one side, and on the other side, there are some schools that have come in and said, well, give us $7,500, we’ll take the child.

We can give money but there’s a lack of places where these kids can go to get to and benefit from. So I’m not sure that rushing the system was the best way. But I understand. The Supreme Court ultimately said that it was constitutional, and violated the home rule, but they basically said that they could do it because it did violate it and whatever.

But then they’re trying to rush and put the program together. But school had already started, or was about to start, I think it was a week out when the judicial ruling came out. And so they tried to put together the program, and basically in a week or two. You know you’re going to see problems.

And here’s one of the things, too, Michael. They have to give up their IDEA rights. This means if you have a disability, you lose that disability [allowance] and you can no longer accept services. So this is going to not be beneficial to children with disabilities.

So that’s a couple of things going on there. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to have to get it fixed. But I don’t know that there’s an appetite to take up this issue back at the legislature right now.

Listen to the interview:


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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.


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2 Thoughts to “JC Bowman Discusses Shelby County Schools Superintendent’s Firing and the Problems with Jamming Through ESAs”

  1. 83ragtop50

    Better rushed than not at all. I see it as a first step.

  2. Horatio Bunce

    “But Michael, the money that goes to the child is $7,500. Here’s the problem: It costs $10,000 to get into some of the lower-level schools that are accepting these schoolchildren.”

    Memphis however is spending closer to $12k per student (that we know of). Since they are perennial failures, birthplace of the SSID since Bedesen wouldn’t exert state control under No Child Left Behind, are Memphis schools considered “lower level”?

    Since the alternatives here are purely voluntary on the part of the parents (though throttled by the state to allow only a minority access), what concern is it of the monopoly system if it is rushed? They have failed these students, or the parents wouldn’t be looking elsewhere.