Profile

Tim Fite

by Jay P. Goldman

In the 10 years that he has deftly guided one of the South’s fastest-growing school systems, Tim Fite has played off his experiences as a parent and a politician to considerable advantage.

Fite has served since 1992 as superintendent of the Tipton County, Tenn., Public Schools, located 40 miles north of Memphis. It’s a system that’s been buffeted by 42 percent enrollment gains over his tenure and the more recent whammy of state budget woes that resulted in pink slips to 85 teachers and other staff.

A native of Munford, Tenn., Fite has been more than up to the test in the eyes of his board chair and a local newspaper reporter who follows the Tipton County district. Both pointed to the political savvy Fite earlier gained during two elected terms on the county commission and the more personal impact of parenting a son with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, considered the disease’s most degenerative form.

During his six years on the Tipton County Commission, which ended with his election to the school superintendency, Fite served on the body’s budget and administration committees. From this, he gleaned an intricate understanding of public finance that has enabled him as superintendent to lead a systemwide school building and renovation program, remarkably without any tax increases.

In particular, Fite mastered the trick of timing school construction projects against the debt service retirement of other county projects, such as the new prison.

“The rapport and trust [I] established paid big dividends once I became superintendent. They (the county commissioners) saw I wasn’t going to jack up the tax rate for my own benefit,” says Fite, who spent 11 years as an elementary school principal in Tipton County before running for the superintendency. He’s been reappointed twice by his school board since a change in state law eliminated elected superintendencies.

Rodney Eubank, who has chaired the county school board for the past 15 years, says Fite combines the “excellent people skills” of a successful campaigner with a masterful sense of organization. “He always stays several steps ahead of the board,” Eubank says.

Those talents have been tested sorely. A projected $6 million shortfall in state aid forced the superintendent earlier this year to issue 85 non-renewal notices to untenured staff before an emergency state sales tax increase negated the drastic personnel move.

His unique challenge at the moment is the planned takeover next June of the 900-student school district of Covington, the Tipton County seat. It’s the final chapter of the two districts’ somewhat awkward relationship that began with a court-ordered desegregation plan in 1969. Perhaps Fite’s most onerous task will be incorporating two staffs into one at the higher salary scale that’s in place in Covington. He predicts that may force a countywide tax increase of up to 20 percent.

Fite also has grown professionally from the parental challenge of raising a son, now 13, with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which gradually weakens the voluntary muscles in the arms, legs and trunk. “As a principal for 12 years, I was 100 percent convinced I could empathize with special education parents,” he says. “But you can’t until you live it.”

He says his personal involvement in the periodic reviews of his son’s individual education plan has made him more sensitive to parent attitudes and more attuned to the inadequacies of federal support for children with disabilities. In terms of his district leadership, the experience has solidified Fite’s support of decentralizing decisions to the building level.

The district’s flat organizational structure means more staff inside schools to remediate failing students and poor-performing teachers, while the small cadre of central-office administrators perform multiple roles. Sometimes Fite commands the wheel of a school bus.

His adroit hand over the affairs in his 10,500-student system has made Fite an attractive candidate for vacant superintendencies elsewhere. He was a finalist earlier this year for the top spot in Shelby County, the district surrounding Memphis, but Fite pulled out before the board made its selection. Not long after, the Tipton board, sufficiently worried about losing its prized leader, ratcheted up his annual pay to $102,000, a $15,000 increase.

“We have a good working relationship,” he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org