Hamilton County school board opens door to consider superintendent contract extension

Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a press conference unveiling the Hamilton County Schools' TNReady test score results and TVAAS scores at the Tennessee Aquarium on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter
photo Joe Smith

After a glowing evaluation of Superintendent Bryan Johnson's performance during his second year, the Hamilton County Board of Education is considering extending his contract.

In a 6-2 vote Thursday night, board members voted to explore the option of extending the superintendent's four-year contract that they ratified in July 2017.

"We're kinda like the Southern Conference, our coach is taking us to a championship and now the Southeastern Conference athletic directors are going to come in and try to hire our coach," said District 3 board member Joe Smith, making a nod to Johnson's fondness for football analogies. "We haven't had a lot of really good luck in superintendents, and I think our current superintendent has demonstrated that he's a really good coach and I just don't want to lose him."

Smith said he was worried other districts might come looking to recruit Johnson since the district has already begun to show significant progress under his leadership.

photo Attorney Scott Bennett speaks during a meeting at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.

Though the original contract language said it did not allow for the board to engage in any conversations about renewing the contract or extending it until 12 months from its expiration date - which is July 2021 - the board's move Thursday negates that.

School board attorney Scott Bennett confirmed that with a majority vote the board can hold a work session to discuss the potential for a new contract.

Johnson's current $197,500/year contract lasts for four years, allows him to receive the same yearly salary increases that certified staff might receive and allows for a buyout agreement.

But board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said the language in the contract was there for a reason.

photo Rhonda Thurman

"There's a reason that language is there. We've lived through this," Thurman said. "We've had some superintendents in the past who had their eyes on another job and done something foolhardy and we've had to buy out their contract. There's a reason that language is in there, so it's not costing the taxpayers a few hundred thousand bucks."

The motion does not guarantee that the board will offer a new contract, nor that Johnson would be interested in an extension.

He said he was humbled by the board's discussion and praise Thursday.

"You know, I appreciate the last 20 minutes of dialogue about me. Quite flattering, very uncomfortable. Because our work is about children. I want y'all to know that our work is about children," Johnson told the board.

photo Karitsa Mosley Jones

Board member Karitsa Mosley Jones, of District 5, applauded Johnson for his leadership and commitment to improving the Hamilton County Schools district.

"I want to tell Dr. Johnson that he has done an amazing job. I'm born and raised in Chattanooga, so I know we are not the most pleasant people to come in to," Mosley Jones joked. "You've come and made Hamilton County your home and I want to thank you for that and all that you've done for our children."

Board Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, also acknowledged Johnson's leadership.

"I am thankful for the leadership that Dr. Johnson has provided. There's no one who can look at our school system and where we are now and not believe that we are in a better place," he said. "But nobody up here thinks that we've arrived. We are excited about the direction we are headed."

photo Hamilton County District 7 School Board member and chairman Joe Wingate is seen during a Hamilton County Schools budget work session on Thursday, March 14, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The school board also unanimously approved a $5.75 million budget amendment Thursday night that allocates $2.5 million to build Sale Creek Middle/High School a football stadium, $750,000 to build five new digital fabrication labs - one in each learning community - and gives teachers an additional $555 bonus on top of the $1,500 approved in the original fiscal year 2020 budget.

The board also voted to keep Wingate as chairman for the 2019-20 school year and named Smith vice chairman. District 4 board member Tiffanie Robinson was not present for Thursday night's meeting.

A work session to discuss the superintendent contract has not been announced.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757- 6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.