Make no mistake: John Aitken wants the job of superintendent of the Unified School District. More than that, he thinks he already has the job of superintendent of the district which is a year away from becoming. And, as a result of a decisive vote taken by the Transition Planning Commission on Thursday, the current superintendent of the soon-to-expire Shelby County Schools system is closer than ever before to having those beliefs confirmed.
Meeting at the county's Code Enforcement headquarters building at Shelby Farms, the TPC members debated on how and whether, in their official final report, they should insist on an expedited hiring of a superintendent. 16 members of the 21-member advisory body — a more than sufficient number — would eventually vote for a resolution by Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell that a superintendent should be hired “as soon as possible and no later than fall 2012.”
Although the resolution thereby became a part of the TPC’s provisional final report (to be formally released Friday), it is couched as a recommendation to the Unified School Board, which has the definitive say on matters regarding the new all-county district, scheduled to go into business in August 2013, when the merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools takes place.
The Board will meet on Tuesday and its members will doubtless have some reaction to the TPC’s final plan, which they have the responsibility to vet, along with the state Education Department. And, as an urgent counterpart to Thursday’s TPC vote on the superintendence matter the Board will consider, and no doubt rule on, the contractual status of both Aitken and his MCS counterpart, Kriner Cash.
On both the Board and the TPC, there is an obvious sense in which representatives of county interests on both bodies have looked with favor on the idea of Aitken as superintendent of the merged district. As a corollary, those members of the Board and TPC whose backgrounds are closer to the city’s educational structure are more resistant to that idea and, if not directly supportive of Cash’s credentials for the new job, have been the MCS superintendent’s defender against ongoing efforts on the Board to close out his tenure.
It isn’t a cut-and-dried division, however, since on both bodies there are adherents of unification and opponents of independent municipal districts who have regarded Aitken as a personality capable of assuaging opposition to merger in the county’s six suburban municipalities, which are due to hold referenda on establishing separate school systems on August 2.
Several of the municipal school proponents on both the Unified Board and the TPC are motivated differently. They see Cash as a desirable liaison figure, someone familiar and comfortable to deal with if they are successful in establishing their breakaway districts.
And there would seem to be people both places who think Cash is getting a bum’s rush out of a job. The city superintendent’s contract is set to expire in a matter of days before the new Unified District begins in August 2013, and when Billy Orgel, president of the Unified Board, recently called a special meeting to deal with Cash’s contract, his move drew serious opposition from several Board members – notably Martavius Jones.
Jones had been a leader on the Memphis City Schools Board in late 2010 in calling for the surrender of the MCS charter, the action which forced SCS-MCS merger and triggered in the legislature the defensive action called the Norris-Todd Act, which, along with follow-up legislation this year, allows the suburbs the municipal-school-district option as of the merger date. As a member of both the TPC and the Unified School Board, Jones has subsequently been one of the staunched champions of the unification process.
But, for whatever complex of motives, what he saw as a move to force Cash out of the unification process and move Aitken in spurred Jones to try to block that process. He set out to include the matter of Aitken’s contract on the agenda of Orgel’s called meeting, and, after several fits and starts and deferrals, the issue was resolved in his favor by the inclusion of the matter of both superintendent’s contracts on the agenda of Tuesday’s Board meeting.
During the TPC debate on the superintendency issue Thursday, Dr. Reginald Green made the startling statement that, so far as he knew, neither of the two superintendents had overtly indicated a desire for the top post in the Unified District. That might be an accurate description of Cash’s posture for the record, but the MCS superintendent has left little doubt privately that he’d happy to have the job.
Aitken, on the other hand, had made no secret whatever of his interest in the position. He has said “Yes” explicitly whenever asked about his interest by the Flyer, and he has been similarly quoted by several other media outlets. He said so again recently when his credentials seemed to be questioned by Jones and others, who also have raised doubts, citing formal requirements concerning public notice, as to whether the SCS superintendent’s contract, set now to expire in 2005, had been validly extended by the SCS Board.
Aitken’s contract is a key issue. Both he and Timothy Setterlund, SCS assistant superintendent, told the Flyer Thursday, even as the TPC debate was raging, that they regard Aitken’s contract, which makes him the continuing head of a legally constituted Shelby County school unit, entitles him to head the new version of the county school district – indeed confers on him that status even as of now. “He’s got the job!” insisted Setterlund.
In actuality, such a claim would seem to require confirmation by the Unified School Board, where there is clearly a sentiment, so far unquantified, to do just that. That portion of Tuesday’s School Board meeting is sure to be a touch-and-go affair.
The TPC’s Thursday debate on Luttrell’s resolution certainly was. Jones was the first objector to it, contending that hurrying up the hiring process would, in the likelihood of Yes votes on August 2 for municipal school systems, be disruptive to the 85 percent of county residents actually involved with the Unified District. Others disclaimed the importance of dealing with the superintendency issue now, and still others, like Kenya Bradsaw, argued that a careful and systematic search process should precede the hiring of a superintendent.
At one point, TPC member Jim Boyd asked Luttrell to accept a friendly amendment to his resolution, urging the School Board to go ahead and expedite hiring a superintendent but to engage in just such a search procedure. This seemed to stun Luttrell, who had just delivered an impassioned statement on behalf of leadership and the need for decisive direction in affairs of “an educational institution, a military campaign, or a prison.” (Luttrell is a former prison superintendent.)
The mayor considered the matter for an elongated period of time and eventually accepted Boyd’s amendment. Fairly quickly, a counter-reaction set in among proponents of Luttrell’s original unalloyed resolution, including TPC chair Barbara Prescott. When ultimately the mayor considered taking back his acceptance of the amendment, some debate ensued as to whether the Commission’s rules of order permitted that. As a fail-safe measure, Daniel Kiel offered another friendly amendment, canceling out the first one, but the issue was finally resolved when Boyd, catching the drift, volunteered to withdraw his amendment.
Then came first a positive vote to call the question, and when the original Luttrell resolution itself was voted on, it passed easily. But there had been a fair degree of tension and considerable rhetorical combat before that finally came to pass.
Almost everybody saw the whole brouhaha not as an abstract discussion but as a test case on the John Aitken candidacy. Count him as the winner of Round One, on points.
Round Two is Tuesday night, and there’s no telling how that will go. For his part, Cash surely hopes he’ll still be standing when it’s all over – perhaps in a new compromise status as a long-term contractual “mentor” for the new Unified superintendent, whoever that turns out to be.