The Monroe County School System has a new director of schools, and it’s one for the history books.

In a called meeting on Thursday night, Dr. DeAnna McClendon was selected as the new director with a majority vote (five votes). McClendon is the first female director of schools in the history of the Monroe County School System. She is also the first African-American to serve in that role.

"My dad (Alfred McClendon) always taught me to shoot for the moon and if you fall, you will land among the stars," McClendon told The Advocate & Democrat. "I sit on the shoulders of him having been a public servant for over 30 years as the first African-American alderman, mayor and city recorder in Madisonville. Now I follow in his footsteps as not only the first female superintendent of Monroe County, but the first African-American female superintendent."

McClendon said she is grateful to have been selected for the position.

"I will work as hard as I can to ensure that I do not fail the families and students of Monroe County," she said. "I review the social media sites and I understand that communities are afraid their needs and desires will be left out of the vision. I would like to go on the record to say that I am committed to work and make sure that all the students in Monroe County get the very best education."

She continued, "It will not happen overnight, but if I am given an opportunity from the community and a board that will work for the common good of all students then I believe that this district will become one of the best in the state."

Second District board member Marsha Boring, who also serves as vice chairwoman of the Board of Education, said she felt McClendon was the right person for the job.

“From all her superiors and others that I spoke with from the Memphis area, they said she was a true leader, extremely hard worker and a watch dog of funds,” said Standridge. “I feel confident she will be a win for our educational endeavors across the county.”

McClendon may have received the five-vote majority to get the nod for the director job, but it was a close race as Phillip Swanson received four votes, respectfully. Robert Hooper received no votes.

The meeting started off rocky, as the board held a private, executive meeting with School Board attorney Doris Matthews prior to calling the meeting to order. It was 6:41 p.m. before the meeting was called to order—11 minutes after the publicized time of the meeting.

Chairwoman Sonya Lynn encouraged the board members to carefully consider their votes.

“We need to keep the best interest of our school system and our kids in mind as we do this,” she said.

Then, 2nd District board member Janie Harrill made a motion to suspend the vote on a new director of schools until a later time.

“Until we get some things cleared up,” Harrill suggested.

Her motion included appointing current Director of Schools Tim Blankenship on a month-to-month basis until the “investigations are over with.”

But Harrill’s motion failed for a lack of a second.

First District’s Dewitt Upton then made a motion to extend Blankenship’s contract for one year until the situation was resolved. His motion was seconded by 1st District’s John Ridgell.

In a roll call vote, however, the motion failed 2-8.

At that point, 1st District’s Faye Green made a motion to nominate McClendon, who currently serves as Shelby County Schools’ director of Early Childhood Programs, as the director of schools. Standridge seconded the motion.

But the discussion took a different turn as some board members felt voting this way would be unfair to the other two candidates.

“By nominating her are we going to get to nominate the others, or are we going to do a roll call vote, or is this it?” questioned 3rd District’s Jo Cagle.

“If she gets five votes, she’s the new director of schools,” clarified Chairwoman Lynn.

Per the “Director of Schools Recruitment and Selection” policy, the board “shall attempt to select a director by unanimous vote but only a majority vote of the membership of the board shall be required for the appointment of a director of schools.”

Cagle said she thought the board was going to discuss how to handle the vote before actually voting.

“Well, we sat here and nobody said anything until Faye made the motion,” answered Lynn.

Cagle opposed that idea, saying she felt like it needed to be fair to all the candidates.

“By nominating one, you don’t have a chance for the others,” she said.

“They don’t have a chance,” agreed 3rd District’s Sharin Freeman.

Upton then amended the motion on the floor to have the board vote the same way as they did to narrow the candidates down from a field of five to three finalists—each board member writing their top choice on a signed piece of paper and then tallying the votes publicly.

“If we do it that way, whoever gets five votes is the next director of schools,” said Lynn.

Freeman seconded Upton’s amended motion.

Upton noted that if three votes occurred and a new director still had not been selected, then the board could talk about other options.

In a roll call vote, all board members agreed with Upton’s motion to choose the new director by paper ballot.

It only took one vote, however, to choose McClendon as director as she got five votes and the notch for the job on the first paper ballot vote. Each board member’s vote was read aloud and tallied by board secretary Sandra Blair.

Green, Harrill, Standridge, Lynn and Dr. Jason Miller voted for McClendon.

Upton, Ridgell, Freeman and Cagle voted for Swanson.

Hooper received zero votes.

“Dr. DeAnna McClendon is our new director of schools,” announced Lynn.

Two-year contract with a clause

Following the vote, Freeman made a motion to add a clause to McClendon’s contract that states if any indictment or ruling comes out of the investigation she is in currently involved with in Shelby County Schools that McClendon “step away and cost the county nothing.”

The motion was seconded by Ridgell.

“I think that has already been submitted by her lawyer to do that,” noted Green.

“We need to protect ourselves,” added Freeman.

Standridge agreed, saying she felt it should be added to the contract as well.

“I think Dr. McClendon would agree with that,” Green said.

“Absolutely,” responded McClendon.

But Upton felt it was not necessary.

“She’s our director,” he said. “That’s the way we need to go and try to go forward in this county and our school system. I don’t think we need to put anything.”

Regardless, the motion was put to a roll call vote. Upton originally passed on the vote, but when it came back around to him, he voted “yes,” making it a unanimous vote to add the clause to McClendon’s contract.

“The reason I like that motion is that I noticed Monday night at the community meeting that there were a lot of questions about whether or not Dr. McClendon was being transparent about the circumstances of the current investigation. What Dr. McClendon did not say and I would like to say is that she is under a gag order and cannot give specific details about the facts and things involved in her investigation,” noted Green. “It made her look evasive to me. I wish the term gag order had been mentioned that night and for that purpose. I think it is admirable of her to volunteer to step back if anything comes out of this.”

The Advocate & Democrat broke the news locally of the investigation involving McClendon in her current district—Shelby County Schools—after a Memphis television station first reported it. McClendon remains on administrative leave as part of the investigation, which allegedly stems from anonymous complaints made about her.

At Monday night’s community meeting, McClendon said in a leadership role sometimes you make decisions that result in negative feedback.

“I’m going to do what is right,” she said. “I am going to make a decision, even if it’s a tough decision or a hard decision, I’m going to do what is best for the children and the majority. That doesn’t always make you popular.”

“There is an investigation occurring and I’m glad it occurs,” McClendon continued. “I anticipate just like anything else, the investigation will occur, they will clear and we’ll move on.”

McClendon’s lawyer, attorney James E. King Jr. with Eskins, King & Marney, P.C., emailed the Board of Education on June 12 acknowledging the investigation. This week, he emailed the board again to say he expected nothing in the investigation will “result in employment action or criminal charges.” In addition, he provided a provision to be placed in McClendon’s contract if she were to be selected as director of schools.

“If at any time it is determined by Shelby County Schools (SCS) that the conduct investigated by SCS during academic year 2018-19 gives rise to any criminal charges of any kind whatsoever being brought against Dr. DeAnna McClendon, the Monroe County Board of Education has the right to immediately terminate Dr. DeAnna McClendon and void the contract from the date of termination,” he wrote.

As the new director, McClendon will receive a two-year contract (with a clause included) beginning on July 1. Her starting salary will be $100,000 with the same benefits package as what Blankenship had currently. Board members have also tossed around the idea of adding incentives in the director’s salary if the school system meets certain criteria throughout the year. Those incentives, however, have yet to be decided on.

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