Aitken’s Surprise Greets School Board

By Bill Dries

The countywide school board returns from spring break Tuesday, March 19, for a special meeting that could include terms of or at least a discussion of buyout terms for Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

Aitken’s attorney opened buyout discussions with attorneys for the school system. But little else is known about where the talks are or Aitken’s specific motivation for seeking the buyout.

Meanwhile, the school board will vote Tuesday, March 19, on a new timeline for the national search to be conducted by PROACT, the consulting firm hired by the board.

An earlier timeline set mid-May as the date by which the school board would have hired a new superintendent. The timeline the board will consider Tuesday sets May 3 as the date when applications from the prospective superintendents are due. Beyond the application date, other milestones to "pre-screen, screen and interview applicants," a narrowing of the field to 3-4 finalists and the hiring of a superintendent are "to be determined," according to the schedule.

Aitken became the de facto schools superintendent in charge of merger planning with the buyout of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash in January. And U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays appointed Rick Masson earlier this month as special master to report to Mays on the progress in merger planning, particularly on the selection of a merger superintendent.

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

School board members will be listening closely for the timing of Aitken’s departure if there is a buyout deal. An immediate departure by Aitken would be a jolt for the merger process, which is working toward having a basic single consolidated school system for the entire county ready to open classes on Aug. 5 and open the fiscal year July 1 with a single budget for operations.

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

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.

If the board doesn’t vote on a buyout deal Tuesday or one isn’t ready for the board to vote on, sentiment for Aitken and to scrap the superintendent search or push it back further into the merger could build.

The superintendent search process gets under way Wednesday night with the first of several community input sessions on the search at East High School. That is followed by the second session Thursday evening at Houston High School.

Meanwhile, on the board’s work session agenda for the 5:30 p.m. meeting is 10 more new and revised policies to take effect with the merger in the new school year. The policies include procedures for professional services contracts, setting attendance zones and a local preference in purchasing.