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VOL. 128 | NO. 56 | Thursday, March 21, 2013

Aitken Departs Post Without Board Opposition

By Bill Dries

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In the end there weren’t any attempts Tuesday, March 19, to talk John Aitken into remaining as Shelby County Schools superintendent.

AITKEN

Countywide school board members made no moves to call off a superintendent search process that now has no firm date by which to pick a schools leader.

After a closed meeting for nearly an hour Tuesday with their attorneys, school board members unanimously accepted the terms of a buyout for Aitken that means his immediate departure less than five months before the first day of classes begins for the consolidated school system.

The buyout talks began at Aitken’s request and became public earlier this month.

Aitken didn’t talk about specific reasons for seeking the buyout.

“It has been a tough decision,” he told the board after they approved the buyout. “This was a personal decision. I appreciate the board honoring that request at my behest. It is bittersweet.”

The terms of the buyout are identical to those approved in the buyout of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash earlier this year.

Aitken gets the equivalent of six months of regular pay for a total estimated at more than $300,000. He becomes an adviser to the school system immediately through the end of May.

“I live here and I’m not going anywhere,” Aitken said. “This was not an easy decision. It was done at my behest. I think the public does need to know that. ... I will be here in the community and I will still be involved.”

School board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. came the closest of any board member to blaming the buyout on a merger whose terms are still in flux.

“It is obvious this is Aitken’s choice. A special master would have avoided this,” Whalum said referring to the appointment this month of Rick Masson by U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays to oversee the merger planning.

Mays took the step after he expressed alarm at the pace of the development of a merger plan, particularly the search for a merger superintendent.

Whalum argued Mays should have made the appointment much earlier.

School board member Betty Mallott defended the board’s pace on a merger structure as she credited Aitken with much of the hard work.

“I think that as this unfolds, even the special master will see that the majority of the work is behind us,” she said.

Masson was at the meeting and attended the closed session the board had with its attorneys on the buyout.

School board member David Reaves described the buyout as a “sad day for parents in Shelby County.”

“It’s going to hurt today. It’s going to hurt tomorrow,” he added. “From my viewpoint, I had to look at this decision and determine what’s best for the school district and what’s best for John.”

Cash’s departure in January made Aitken the de facto merger superintendent after critics of the pace of the merger had emphasized that the path to the merger needed a single superintendent calling the shots on the terms.

The board instead voted to undertake a national search. The board also hired a national search firm with a target date for hiring a superintendent that has drifted from mid-February to mid-May. The latest timeline set a May 5 deadline for applicants to apply with no set date for the hiring of a superintendent by the board.

Even approval of a brochure for the search was delayed Tuesday because some on the school board search committee objected to some of the pictures used in the prototype they saw.

After Cash’s buyout, the school board named Memphis City Schools general counsel Dorsey Hopson as the interim MCS superintendent. It is unclear if the school board will appoint an interim superintendent to replace Aitken.

Aitken’s buyout overshadowed a critical board vote on moving toward a new compensation schedule for teachers in the merged school district that would move toward rewarding teachers for student performance in a gradual move away from seniority and experience as well as advanced degrees.

The board approved a recommendation from its merger steering committee of school administrators to move toward developing such a performance-based system by the 2015-2016 school year.

But the board delayed a vote until at least next week on recommendations that would have taken a first step by only rewarding teachers with a pay bump for advanced degrees in math and science. Another recommendation was also delayed to give teachers until Aug. 1 to start on advanced degrees other than math and science and get a pay bump if they complete the degrees by Aug. 1, 2015.

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