Superintendent contract vote will not be unanimous, Hamilton County school board member says

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson gives a "State of the System" address at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Johnson shared the current state of the school system and his outline for the future in an address to the community.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson gives a "State of the System" address at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Johnson shared the current state of the school system and his outline for the future in an address to the community.

The vote later this month to extend Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson's contract might not be a unanimous one, but most board members say they support locking him down for another four years.

On Wednesday, the school system announced that extending Johnson's contract will be the first item of business at this month's school board meeting on Feb. 20.

The board would have to offer the superintendent, who was hired in 2017, a new contract instead of extending his current contract, which is up in June 2021.

But longtime board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, said she will not vote in favor of extending Johnson's contract at this point.

"It's so early, and I just think he's going to get more money much earlier," Thurman said.

The new contract would offer Johnson $240,000 a year through June 2024, according to a draft copy - about $23,000 more than Johnson is making now. His original salary in 2017 was $197,000 a year, but thanks to certified staff and performance raises, this year he is making $217,000.

The draft contract includes up to $20,000 in possible raises based on student performance and the district's achievement goals laid out in its five-year strategic plan, including raising Hamilton County Schools' graduation rate to 90% by 2023 and getting 38% of Algebra 1 students on track.

Johnson's original contract stipulated that the board could not consider an extension until only a year was left in his tenure, but board members voted 6-2 in September 2019 to open the door for contract negotiations.

Thurman has maintained that the decision not to negotiate too early was included in his contract for a reason.

She also questioned Johnson's proposal at his annual State of the System address to amend the district's fiscal year 2020 budget and allocate $3 million to give Hamilton County Schools staff a 2.5% pay hike effective this month.

"It's amazing to me the timing on this, " she told the Times Free Press. "He didn't want the bad publicity that he's getting a raise and the teachers didn't."


— Monday, Feb. 17: School board agenda session at 5 p.m.— Thursday, Feb. 20: School board meeting at 5:30 p.m.* Meetings held in the board room at the Hamilton County Department of Education’s central office at 3074 Hickory Valley Road

But other board members argue the district needs stability, and with concerns that other school districts might try to recruit Johnson, they plan to approve another four-year contract this month.

"I am going to support a contract extension for Dr. Johnson," said board member Tucker McClendon, of District 8. "I think if it's one thing that this district has lacked, it's good leadership and stability, and I think that making sure that we have Dr. Johnson at the helm of our school district ensures that we get stability and continuity and that it's not a distraction to your teachers so that we can move forward and look upon improving this year as much as we did last year."

Board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, also believes the timing is appropriate due to the blackout period the board will be facing thanks to August's elections.

The board will not be able to negotiate a new superintendent contract from May until September this year.

"I think the timing is appropriate given the fact that we have the restrictions related to the election cycle that is coming up," Hill told the Times Free Press. "Bryan is doing an excellent job and he has vision, he has the work ethic and he has the knowledge to lead our system. My hope would be that he would do it for a long time, and I think it's important that our school board and Hamilton County as a whole demonstrates some appreciation and respect for what he has done."

Some school board members have been working to approve a new contract for Johnson for months. Board member Joe Smith, of District 3, pushed in September and brought the subject up again in January in hopes of forcing a special-called session before the end of the month to discuss the contract.

Smith, echoing McClendon, told the Times Free Press on Wednesday that he also feels the school system needs stability.

"Dr. Johnson was the fourth superintendent in 11 years when he was hired, and it's time for stability at the top. Young and innovative superintendents are in demand, and the community is best served by keeping Dr. Johnson in Hamilton County," he said.

Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, declined to comment on how she would vote, but said she looked forward to speaking with her colleagues about extending Johnson's contract.

The board can vote to approve a final version of the contract - which has not been publicly released - on Feb. 20, but board Chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, could not say for certain if the board would vote to do so.

The new four-year contract, according to the draft copy, also commits a $10,000-a-year contribution to the superintendent's retirement plan and allows for Johnson to be paid for professional activities, such as speaking engagements, as long as doing so "does not detract from the duties of his employment," according to the draft.

The remaining benefits in the draft contract include an $825-a-month vehicle allowance, paid time off and benefits.

Johnson referred any request for comment about his contract to the board earlier this week, but did tell the Times Free Press that he remains "focused on accelerating student achievement and supporting the district's teachers and leaders."

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

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