Collierville Schools Superintendent John Aitken to retire

By Updated: March 01, 2019 2:15 PM CT | Published: February 28, 2019 8:05 PM CT

John S. Aitken, the first superintendent of Collierville Schools, announced Thursday he is retiring effective June 30.

Aitken told school board members during a work session. Board chairman Mark Hansen thanked Aitken in a tweet for his 5 1/2 years of service.

Aitken will turn 61 June 30, the official day of his retirement. He said family matters, including a pair of twin 3 1/2-year-old grandchildren, contributed to his decision. After 39 years in education, he decided it was time to enjoy things.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Aitken said, “but I’m not getting any younger.”

He added the decision to step down “is bittersweet.”

The board is hiring a third-party search firm to begin the search for a new superintendent, according to state Rep. Kevin Vaughan, who serves on Collierville's school board. He said the board desires to hire someone quickly with the upcoming budget season and other agenda items and to have a "smooth" transition. However, he did not know if it was "likely" to happen quickly. 

"It's critical we get someone who can hit the ground running," Vaughan said after the meeting.

Vaughan described Aitken as "the gold standard," and he "will be terribly missed."

A statement from Collierville Schools said although 
Aitken's contract runs through June 30, 2020, provisions allow him to leave early with 60 days' notice to the school board.

Aitken started his career working three years in Arkansas before coming to Memphis and Shelby County. After working his way through coaching and teaching positions, he was named assistant principal at Houston High under John Clayton in 1992. He held the assistant’s role until becoming the school’s principal in 1997, a position he held for 11 years.

He left Houston in 2008 to serve as assistant superintendent for the legacy Shelby County Schools system and then superintendent a year later. While there, he played a critical role in the district's merger with the Memphis City Schools system. 

Aitken retired from the county district in 2013, and he officially became Collierville Schools superintendent Jan. 1, 2014.

"We are very fortunate he came out of retirement (after Shelby County Schools) because of his love for students," Vaughan said.

Because of his experience as a superintendent, Aitken led the coalition of all six suburban school districts in negotiating a shared service agreement integral to forming quickly and contracting for non-instructional services to all the school systems. The suburban superintendents also continue to work closely with the leader of Shelby County Schools.

Aitken led the drive for Collierville to have a single high school instead of building two to serve the town's growing population. Prior to the formation of the suburban school districts, a substantial number of Collierville teenagers attended Houston High in Germantown. Aitken negotiated an agreement with Germantown Municipal School District leaders to continue that at the outset of the demerger.

The new $95 million Collierville High opened in August with a capacity of 3,000 students and an instructional program that includes career and technical education as well as digital devices for all students, and the network to support them and the devices in other Collierville schools.

Aitken said he and his family began talking informally about potential retirement around Christmas. Other circumstances contributed to enhanced consideration of leaving at the end of the current school year. He began discussing that internally with board members. Aitken told his staff earlier Thursday that he would announce his retirement at the board meeting.

Vaughn described him as a mentor and "coach" for many of the municipalities' superintendents. 

Germantown Superintendent Jason Manuel described him as a “true mentor” and “true friend.”

Manuel said he has spent his entire educational career with Aitken and learned a lot from him.

Manuel admired the way Aitken helped the municipalities navigate early challenges, and he said he learned a lot from his Aitken's leadership.

“John is a caring, kind, servant leader,” he said. “He cared about you as a person. He cared about your family.”

He said students would graduate and then come back 15 years later. He remembered and asked specific details about their lives.

“The most important thing I learned from John was if you make all your decisions around children, you can’t go wrong,” Manuel said.

David Stephens, superintendent of Bartlett City Schools, served as assistant superintendent when Aitken was over the county district. He said he wasn't aware of Aitken's intention, adding with a laugh: "With John, you never know."

Stephens, like Aitken, became the first leader of his respective school district. The two had worked together, coached against each other and cooperated in making the suburban district operate when they were formed.

"What a great career that guy had," Stephens said by telephone Thursday night after learning of Aitken's announcement. "I think the world of John. I wouldn't be where I am today without John."

Stephens also wondered if finally getting into the new Collierville High School, a state-of-the-art facility that opened this school year on the town's south side, was what Aitken considered his top accomplishment.

"He's worked hard out there for these past five years," Stephens said.

Aitken acknowledged the completion of Collierville High and starting classes last summer was a benchmark for the consideration.

“The high school was a large undertaking,” he said, adding: “Once that’s done, you take a step back and breathe a sigh of relief.”

Aitken is the third superintendent of one of the seven local school districts within Shelby County to leave in the past several months. David Roper, superintendent of Millington Municipal Schools, left that school system in July, with Bo Griffin succeeding him.

And Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson stepped down in January to take a position with Cigna Healthcare. Joris Ray is interim superintendent.

Reporters Bill Dries and Abigail Warren, along with Metro Editor Ron Maxey and Sports Editor Clay Bailey, contributed to this story.


Collierville Collierville City Schools John Aitken Education

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