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VOL. 124 | NO. 61 | Monday, March 30, 2009

Aitken Brings Local Experience to County Schools Post

By Bill Dries

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BUSINESS AS USUAL: Incoming Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken, left, with County School Board Chairman David Pickler. The relationship between the two is expected to be similar to the ones the board has had with most of Aitken’s predecessors. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

Few were surprised last week when John Aitken became the next superintendent of the Shelby County Schools system.

The only surprise was the vote wasn’t unanimous.

School board member Diane George was the lone vote for Collierville High School principal Tim Setterlund in the second round of voting by the seven-member board.

Aitken, who has been acting superintendent during the three-month

medical leave of Superintendent Dr. Bobby Webb, dutifully left the meeting room Thursday as the board began the selection process. It was Webb’s first board meeting back as superintendent since he took the leave for an undisclosed illness. Just before he announced his return, Webb also announced his retirement effective at the end of June.

That is when Aitken will take over.

Experience in hallways

Aitken is best known in the system for his 1992-2008 tenure as assistant principal and then principal at Houston High School. He became an assistant superintendent last year and comes to the top job with an intimate knowledge of the school system.

“When you go into a new job, obviously you want to see some things and monitor and adjust and make sure there are some things going on,” Aitken told reporters after his selection when asked what he might change. “Probably not anything. I’ve got a great staff.”

Aitken’s relationship with the elected county school board is much different than that of his counterpart in the Memphis school system.

Memphis Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash and the nine-member elected Memphis school board function with Cash as the face of the system. Memphis school board president Tomeka Hart told The Memphis News, sister publication of The Daily News, in an October cover story on Cash that the board functions as “a governance body and not a member of the administrative team” since a series of strategy sessions with Cash late last year.

The Shelby County school board has a more upfront role. County school board chairman David Pickler has been the school system’s voice in more instances than Webb has been.

Cash and Aitken were also selected by their respective school boards in much different manners. Cash was hired as the result of a nationwide search that involved a consulting firm. He came to the Memphis job from the Miami-Dade public school system in Florida.

Dr. Willie Herenton was the Memphis school system’s last homegrown superintendent with Johnnie Watson, a retired assistant superintendent, serving briefly as interim superintendent between the tenures of Dr. Gerry House and Dr. Carol Johnson.

Aitken is homegrown and Webb, who came to the Shelby County post from being head of the neighboring Lauderdale County school system, was the first superintendent since at least 1893 to come from outside Shelby County.

The county school board decided to limit its search to West Tennessee and not hire a search firm.

“We are very proud that we have now restored what has been a tradition going back to 1893 that this board of education has been able to look within our ranks to appoint an outstanding individual from within the Shelby County school family to lead this system,” Pickler said minutes after Aitken was selected.

Getting started

Aitken will not have to worry about putting together a budget proposal as one of his first acts.

The county school board last week approved a $350 million operating budget proposal put together by Webb and his staff that anticipates no new state or local funding. It will use approximately $4 million from the school system’s reserve fund. The budget proposal goes next to the Shelby County Board of Commissioners.

“The two biggest challenges right now are the economy … and the world’s changing,” Aitken said. “The world, as we all know, is getting smaller.”

Aitken becomes superintendent as city and county government leaders, including both city and county school boards, are exploring ways of changing how both public school systems are funded.

“I’ve been part of some of the discussion,” Aitken told The Daily News. “But I’m going to lean on Dr. Webb and my board as we move through in the transition.”

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