Aitken Buyout Approved

By Bill Dries

The contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken has been bought out by the countywide school board at Aitken’s request. And it takes effect immediately.

The board decision came after a closed session with the board’s attorneys for nearly an hour Tuesday, March 19.

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 advisor 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.”

Aitken’s departure was more unexpected than Cash’s. Cash’s contract was to run out with the start of the merger on Aug. 5 and he had applied for several superintendents positions in other school districts.

Aitken’s contract had been extended by the old Shelby County Schools board through the second school year of the merger.

Cash’s departure made Aitken the defacto merger superintendent as critics of the pace of the merger continued to emphasize that the path to the merger needed a single superintendent calling the shots on the terms. Aitken was among those who called for a board decision on a single superintendent last year.

The board instead voted to undertake a national search which local candidates can apply for. 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 superintendent by the board.

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.

Until or unless that happens, Hopson becomes the administrative leader of the merger work as well as Memphis City Schools.

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.

The school board also approved contracts for two charter schools to co-locate within Northside and Southside High Schools with the new school year. The charters will be operated by the W.E.B. DuBois Consortium whose leadership includes former Memphis Mayor and Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton.

The consortium has a three-year lease at each school for $141,500 a year.

The board also called off plans for a new optional school called Bravo Academy within Humes Middle School with the new school year. Instead, the board will soon vote on an agreement in which the charter school operated by Gestalt Community Schools for the state-run Achievement School District opens in Humes with the new school year.

Gestalt has been educating one grade from Humes out of Gordon Elementary School this school year. That school would move into Humes in August.

Hopson told board members the ASD expects to get a $10 million to $11 million grant to refurbish Humes. He said the decision not to pursue the optional school at Humes approved by the board last year was prompted by the school's purpose drifting from the board's original plan.

"A significant factor is the fiscal crisis we are in at this time," he added.

Hopson estimated 65 students had enrolled in Bravo Academy and schools administrators are working with their parents on alternative assignments.

An alternative school operated by MCS within the conventional school at Humes will remain in the building under a colocation agreement with the Achievement School District.