In a frank and amiable exchange on the WKNO-TV program Behind the Headlines, the superintendents of Shelby County’s two still functioning school systems — John Aitken of Shelby County Schools and Kriner Cash of Memphis City Schools — looked into the crystal ball Friday and provided estimates, a year away from merger, on the future of local education.
Both superintendents attempted to stress the positive — Aitken referring to the year ahead as a “celebration” of what comes next and Cash speaking of “a great sense of hope and optimism.” But neither Aitken nor Cash (who acknowledged being “sad” about the imminent passing of MCS, "the Grand Old Lady") was bashful about pinpointing unresolved issues and pending problems.
Aitken and Cash each emphasized the imperative need for the Unified School Board to act without further delay on the recommendations of the Transition Planning Commission, but each also noted holes in the plan resulting from last week’s election results and the near certainty of there being six new independent municipal school systems in the county’s suburbs a year from now.
Calculating the enrollment of what will remain of the Unified system will entail “monumental work for our staff,” said Aitken, requiring the preparation of “a Plan A, a Plane B, and a Plan C” to deal with “re-zoning” and compensate for “gaps in the plan.” And Cash suggested that the ultimate Unified System will be city-oriented and significantly different from the one, “heavily weighted toward the municipalities,” that the TPC envisioned.
Asked about their respective interests in becoming superintendent of the Unified System, Cash sounded an ambivalent note. The issue was “not clear-cut” with him, he said, because of the different kind of system the new one would be. “I was in love with Memphis City Schools,” he said. Aitken was forthright. “I’ve always said I’ve had an interest in the job,” adding, “I understand the politics of everything involved.”
The Unified School Board last month voted not to renew the existing contract of Cash, which expires at roughly the time of the planned merger, in August 2013, while the board rejected similar action with regard to Aitken’s contract, which was extended by his former SCS board to 2015. Both men, however, remain eligible for the superintendency of the Unified System as the Unified Board prepares to implement an organized search.
Cash pointed out that the creation of “municipals” would necessitate the hiring, not just of one superintendent, but of as many as seven.
Asked about the TPC’s recommended closing of some 21 unspecified city schools, Cash said school closings had already been contemplated under MCS auspices, and he said he preferred the term “right-sizing” to describe the process. Most of the closures would occur in the “southwest” portion of Memphis, site of a declining and aging population, he said.
Both superintendents talked about the ease with which they and their staffs had cooperated in making preliminary arrangements for the forthcoming sea change. Aitken referred to the fact of “good folks and good staffs working together,” and Cash made a special point of praising the long-term “stability of the principals” in the SCS system.
The two superintendents were interrogated by BTH host Eric Barnes and reporters Bill Dries of the Daily News and Jane Roberts of The Commercial Appeal.
The program is scheduled for broadcast on WKNO,Channel 10, at 6:30 Friday evening, and will be repeated at 8:30 Sunday morning.