This story was updated with additional information on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 at 5:39 p.m.
Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson has been named as one of four national finalists for 2021 National Superintendent of the Year, according to a news release from the school system.
"I am honored to be considered for National Superintendent of the Year," Johnson said in the release. "This recognition isn't about my work but it's about the collective work of our amazing school board, teachers, staff, parents and community, who have all been laser-focused on serving children.
"Despite the overwhelming obstacles presented by the global pandemic, our team hasn't wavered from its commitment to educational excellence, and I'm grateful to serve alongside these heroes."
Hundreds of supporters, from parents to teachers to administrators to community members, praised Johnson on social media after the announcement, thanking him for his continued commitment to students.
"I am very proud that we have a superintendent that is doing work and leading our district on a trajectory that he is receiving national recognition," said District 5 Board Member Karitsa Mosley Jones in an interview with the Times Free Press.
For many HCS board members, the magnitude of the nomination is not lost.
"When you stop and think about the thousands of school districts across America and our own Dr. Johnson is nominated as one of four finalists, I mean that speaks volumes what he's done in three short years in Chattanooga, Tennessee, [and] Hamilton County Schools," said Joe Smith, District 3 board member.
While the national attention and years of local achievement may further open up the possibility that a larger organization or district will seek to employ Johnson in the coming years, many on the board hope he will stay as long as possible.
"My fear is that some school district much larger than ours will come and try to steal him away," Smith said. "Dr. Johnson inherited a nightmare when he got here three years ago but he has moved the Hamilton County system to the next level.
"When the pandemic hit, the job that he and his team have done to be able to reopen schools and have kids in schools where they need to be has just been amazing and a model for not only our state, [but for schools across the county.]"
The majority of the board has been intentional about expressing its continued interest in Johnson's leadership, in part by a contract renewal approved 7-2 in February that spans from July 2020 to June 2024.
The renewal keeps him in the top three highest-paid superintendents in the state with an annual base salary of $240,000 among other benefits, up from his previous pay of $197,000 from when he was hired in 2017.
"I think the board will always be looking to the future to see what we can do to retain our talent. We just have to keep moving forward and focus on the work before us," said Tucker McClendon, District 8 board member. "What happens in the future happens, but I know the board is always looking at ways to make sure that Dr. Johnson is appreciated and he knows that the board has been supporting him and everything he does."
And while she doesn't know what the future holds and wishes Johnson the best, Mosley Jones doesn't want to see him go anytime soon.
"I would hope he stays here until he retires," she said. "He's doing amazing work. I think he has the right people in place. ... I believe as the board and as a community, we [should] continue to work alongside Dr. Johnson and support him. As a board, we need to be an advocate for our students in the work that he's trying to do to improve their educational opportunities."
In September, Johnson was honored as Tennessee's Superintendent of the Year by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents after being named Southeast Tennessee Superintendent of the Year in May.
Hamilton County Schools was also designated as a Level 5 district, the highest-ranking from the Tennessee Department of Education for student academic growth in 2019.
The winner of the national contest will be announced on Feb. 18, 2021, following a final round of interviews and a news conference on Jan. 8, 2021. The award is given by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, a group formerly known as the American Association of School Administrators.
The other three finalists are Khalid Mumin of Reading School District in Reading, Pennsylvania; Christy Perry of Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Salem, Oregon; and Michelle Reid of Northshore School District in Bothell, Washington.
The last time a Tennessee educator won the award was 1999, when N. Gerry House of Memphis City Schools won.
"I think we've seen over the past two or three years up close and personal what kind of leader, what kind of person in general Dr. Johnson is, so it comes to no surprise that he is superintendent of the year for the state of Tennessee and he's one of the top four superintendents in the country," McClendon said. "And I have no doubt that he is the best in the country and will bring home the award."