In just over two years since he was chosen to lead Hamilton County Schools, Bryan Johnson and his team have focused the conversation about public education on what can be done to change the trajectory of students' lives and how a high-performing, successful school district can fuel the greater community's success.
"I think we've elevated important conversations about public education here in our county, and hopefully given a bit of a peek at what can be and what is and what is to come," Johnson says. "When you talk about having a great public school system, the reality is, in order to recruit great business and industry and continue the growth here in Chattanooga and the greater Hamilton County community, you have to ensure the public school system is improving."
In 2019, Johnson was everywhere — meeting with Chattanooga's most influential business owners and strategizing with the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, speaking at Downtown Rotary Club meetings and courting foundations and philanthropists, including Bill Gates. His goal? To secure more funding for local public schools through a 34-cent property tax rate increase.
The efforts failed. Despite the unprecedented support of the business community, a looming $1.36 billion price tag on capital projects and even Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger's push, the Hamilton County Commission voted down the budget request.
Soon after that loss, a proposed wheel tax referendum, which had the potential to provide millions in additional funding to public schools if voters approved it, was also shot down by the Commission this fall.
Fiscal year 2021 budget talks are still months away and Johnson won't comment on his or the district's plans, but he does remind the community that he owns his role as an advocate for the community's children. It's not just about kids, but "doing right by kids," he says.
"I'm charged with being the lead advocate for 40,000-plus children and all of our teachers and staff members across our district," he says. "My role is also not to be afraid of disruption. I'm about leaning in to making sure we position our students to really be future readywhatever that looks like."
* Job: Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools
* Influence: In under three years as the leader of Hamilton County Schools, Johnson propelled the district toward historic academic gains. The district became one of the fastest-improving districts in the state, and Johnson spent months in 2019 championing the cause of public education in a failed attempt to convince the Hamilton County Commission to raise taxes for additional funding to the county’s public schools.
* Just for fun: When he isn’t focusing on Hamilton County’s 40,000 students, Johnson is often found with his own. Whether it’s weekend baseball games with his 8-year-old son or visiting his 18-year-old daughter at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, the self-proclaimed “homebody” makes sure to balance his public role with family life and his faith.