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VOL. 7 | NO. 3 | Saturday, January 11, 2014

Leaders of Suburban Schools Get to Work

By Bill Dries

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Minutes after his contract as superintendent of Germantown Schools was approved, Jason Manuel was already well along with the process of contemplating the detail work that followed the milestone closely.

“It’s kind of like the chicken before the egg,” Manuel said. “How do you hire someone before you have the human resources department?”

The Germantown Schools board was one of four that completed the set of six schools superintendents with votes Monday, Jan. 6, approving their contracts. The Millington, Lakeland and Arlington Schools boards also approved contracts.

Earlier that day, John Aitken and David Stephens, superintendents of the Collierville and Bartlett Schools districts, respectively, were in schools talking with teachers and principals during what was a holiday for students but an in-service day for the adults.

They have something of a head start since their contracts were approved by their respective boards in December.

But Aitken and Stephens are each working alone in offices provided by the local governments they will be working closely with in the formation of the school districts.

“I have a place to hang my hat,” Stephens said from his temporary office at Bartlett’s City Hall. “They’ve got me set up with a phone and a computer and a printer.”

Aitken has posted some positions.

“To make this  succesful, we’ve got to get the little things taken care of.”

–John Aitken

“I’m working solo out of an office at town hall,” he said.

The day after all six superintendents were hired, they all met together for the first time in what is planned as a weekly get-together, at least up to the start of the next school year.

“Even before we start looking at who we have to hire, we need to know what services are going to be provided by ourselves and what services are we going to work with the other municipalities to meet those needs,” Manuel said. “We’re not sure what that looks like yet. Is each district going to have their own special education department? Is each system going to have their own IT department or is that something we are going to do in conjunction with each other. That kind of determines who we hire and what type of structure.”

Stephens was deputy superintendent of the consolidated school district in the run up to and past the start of the first school year of the merger, which is still underway.

He acknowledges creating a new smaller school district from the ground up is different than merging two existing school systems. But he says there are similarities.

“You are kind of doing some of the same process in reverse,” Stephens said of setting up basic functions like payroll and human resources, benefits, transportation and food services. “All of those things operationally to support the district are going to be the things we are going to have to get up and get running in a short period of time.”

Aitken, who was superintendent of Shelby County Schools for most of the movement into the merger, agrees.

“Seeing how you have to get down in the details to make things work, that’s probably the biggest lesson I learned,” he said of the merger. “You can talk about it out on the surface, but in order to make this thing successful, we’ve got to get the little things taken care of. … I want it down to the barest detail because I want school to start right and everybody to get paid, everybody to be in shape.”

Manuel saw the merger from a different perspective, as the principal of Houston Middle School that had been part of the legacy Shelby County Schools system and then became part of a much larger system. The school is now one of five schools that are to make up the Germantown Schools system.

All but one of the six suburban superintendents are veterans of public education in Shelby County, having served in one of the two legacy public school systems and into the consolidation of those two systems.

Arlington’s school board has a contract with Tammy Mason, the principal of Arlington High School, to serve as its first superintendent.

Ted Horrell, who began the school year as principal of Germantown High School, is the superintendent of Lakeland Schools system, which consists of one school.

David Roper, the former superintendent of schools in Birmingham, Ala., is director of schools in Millington.

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