Emerging Terms of Aitken Buyout Crucial to Merger

By Bill Dries

Countywide school board members could hear the first crucial details Tuesday, March 19, of contract buyout talks under way between their attorney and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

At least a discussion of the talks is expected at the Tuesday special meeting of the board following confirmation Thursday from several board members that Aitken had initiated the talks.

Aitken’s contract as Shelby County Schools superintendent runs through 2015, two years into the merger of Shelby County’s two public school systems.

But Aitken’s position and future have been complicated by the school board’s earlier decision last year to hire a national search firm and conduct a national search for a superintendent.

The board is scheduled to hire a merger superintendent by mid-May according to the timeline the board established when it approved the hiring of the search firm.

“I won’t judge whether it’s good or bad. I’ll say that I don’t blame him,” school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said at a Friday morning taping of the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“I didn’t see the wisdom and still don’t see the wisdom of doing a search,” Whalum added. “Sometimes we sit and discuss the superintendency as though Aitken is not even in the room. It’s got to be very frustrating for him. He’s established a track record.”

On the same program, school board member Kevin Woods said, like Whalum, he knew no details of the buyout talks.

“I think he should continue to serve as the superintendent,” Woods said. “I think if the board had voted for a search, it would probably be in our best interest to continue that process. Yet and still, I see no other candidate as of right now that could rise to the top and prove that they are ready to do the work, like John has.”

With the board’s buyout in January of the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, Aitken had become what Woods termed the “de facto” merger superintendent.

“I think at that point, John became the de facto superintendent for the merger,” Woods said. “There would be a huge void if John was to make that decision and it became effective immediately.”

School board members favoring the national search have said Aitken would be welcome to apply. But still other school board members opposed to such a search have said it sends a message that Aitken will be passed over in the process.

Still unknown is the time frame for Aitken’s departure should his attorney and the school board’s attorney reach terms on a buyout.

“Even if he were bought out, I would be surprised if he left at a point that would leave the system teetering anymore than it is,” Whalum said. “I would think he would stay on.”

“Behind The Headlines” airs on WKNO Friday at 7 p.m. and again at midnight as well as 8:30 a.m. Sunday.