Hamilton County school board approves contract with new superintendent

Hamilton County Schools superintendent candidate Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks to the public during a meet-and-greet in the Board of Education meeting room on Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Johnson is the fourth of five candidates to interview for the position.
Hamilton County Schools superintendent candidate Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks to the public during a meet-and-greet in the Board of Education meeting room on Thursday, June 8, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Dr. Johnson is the fourth of five candidates to interview for the position.

After nearly a month of negotiations, the ink will soon be dry on Hamilton County Schools' newly named Superintendent Bryan Johnson's contract.

The Hamilton County Board of Education approved the four-year contract Tuesday night in a 8-0 vote, and Johnson is set to officially take the helm July 17.

Johnson said Tuesday night that he is humbled and excited to officially join the Hamilton County Department of Education.

"It was clear in my conversations with stakeholders that the community is engaged in public education and supportive of the work that must be done," Johnson said in a statement to the Times Free Press. " ... As a community, we have many decisions to make and many topics to discuss as we begin a new day in public education in Hamilton County. Together we will improve student outcomes."

The contract sets Johnson's starting annual salary at $197,500 plus benefits and allows for a buyout agreement.

Johnson will be making almost what former Superintendent Rick Smith was making when he retired last year, which was about $199,000 plus benefits, up from the $163,500 he made when named superintendent in 2011.

But Johnson, who will lead a more-than-44,000-student school district, still will make less than the heads of local private schools McCallie, Baylor and Girls Preparatory School, as well as the president of the Public Education Foundation, tax records from 2014 show. The highest paid of those school leaders makes more than $589,000.

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, a district nearly double the size of Hamilton County, was hired last year at a starting salary of $285,000.

Steve Highlander, chairman of the school board, described the contract negotiations as a "very strenuous process" during the meeting Tuesday night.

"We have put a lot of hours into it, trying to meet in the middle and meet everyone's needs, both the county and the new director," Highlander said, applauding the school board's attorney for his work on the contract.

That attorney, Scott Bennett, told the board Tuesday that the district has always paid its superintendents less than similarly sized school systems across the country.

"That is absolutely of no consequence if that's what the market is," Bennett said. But he added that since the base salary is on the lower end, Johnson wanted to receive a raise along with teachers in coming years, which is included in the contract.

For the last decade, Johnson, 34, has worked in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, the seventh-largest Tennessee school district, located north of Nashville. He started his career teaching and coaching in the school system and was promoted through the ranks and named chief academic officer in 2015.

The contract the board approved allows Johnson to earn performance raises if he meets certain goals. He will receive $7,500 if the district boosts third grade reading, math and science scores by 10 percentage points from last school year's scores, and he can receive additional bonuses for earning a composite score of a 4 or 5 on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. A score of 4 or 5 means the district posted more than expected academic growth on the state's standardized assessment.

The district has not earned a 4 or 5 composite score on TVAAS since 2013.

Rhonda Thurman, a member of the school board, questioned the raises, and said she'd rather they be one-time bonuses.

"Some of the benchmarks are almost unattainable," she added. "I hope that doesn't look bad for him."

Thurman said she hopes the performance raises will not encourage teachers to "teach to the test" or place unfair pressure on educators to improve test scores so the superintendent receives more money.

Highlander said Johnson told him during negotiations that if the performance benchmarks are met, he hopes that all educators would get a raise. Johnson also welcomed the challenge of meeting the performance goals, Highlander added.

"He is a young man very confident in his ability to bring [the scores] up," he said.

Bennett noted that Johnson has made some tremendous gains in Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools, and the performance bonuses are a way for him to earn more compensation here, if deserved.

"So it's sort of an opportunity to say, 'if you think you can do this, prove it,'" Bennett said. " ... And I think if he gets a composite score of 5 on TVAAS, the last thing people are going to be asking is why are you paying him a bonus."

The contract also limits the board from renewing Johnson's contract until after three years.

Bennett said that is one of the measures in the contract that protects the board from a potentially costly buyout. The clause prevents the superintendent from having his contract renewed annually, which could make it always close to a four-year contract and more expensive to buy out, if needed.

The contract also roughly outlines the board's annual evaluation of Johnson, and requires him to present the board with a strategic plan containing specific goals and objectives each year for consideration and approval.

In coming weeks the board will determine how it plans to specifically evaluate Johnson and clearly establish more performance benchmarks and expectations.

Bennett said Johnson requested the paragraph in the contract that requires the board to meet with him by Sept. 1 to discuss how they will work together and communicate moving forward.

Johnson thanked Highlander and the school board for its collective support and providing him with the opportunity to lead "a group of great teachers, leaders and support staff in improving student achievement."

Johnson said his family, which includes his wife, Candy Johnson, and two children who are 6 and 16, are excited to call Chattanooga and Hamilton County home.

In August, Johnson said every employee in the district will be focused on providing students with a world-class education.

"With great teachers and leaders in every classroom and school, we will do what needs to be done to ensure that every student receives the opportunity to succeed and become post-secondary ready," Johnson said in the statement.

The school board voted June 15 to name Johnson the district's next leader, after more than 15 months without a permanent superintendent. Kirk Kelly has served as the district's interim superintendent during the period.

Despite not having the contract finalized, Johnson has been making regular trips to Hamilton County, meeting with board and community members. Johnson has also had several conversations with the Tennessee Department of Education.

School board member Joe Galloway was not present for the vote Tuesday night due to a prior engagement.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.

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