This story was updated Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020, at 8:33 p.m. with more information.
The Hamilton County school board approved a new contract for Superintendent Bryan Johnson, locking their schools chief down for the next four years.
Johnson's new contract, which takes effect in July and ends in June 2024, raises Johnson's base pay to $240,000 a year, adds a $10,000 untaxed yearly contribution to his retirement plan and includes a combined total of up to $20,000 for four potential performance-based raises.
The school board has discussed extending Johnson's contract since last September — when board member Joe Smith, of District 3, pushed to open the door to negotiate a new contract earlier than what was stipulated in Johnson's original contract.
The first-time superintendent was hired in July 2017, after the school board approved his $197,000 a year contract in a 5-4 vote. Johnson's new contract was approved 7-2 Thursday night.
"I'm excited about the work that has taken place in this district. We have great teachers and leaders in our schools, support staff and community members and continuing to accelerate that work is really the focus," Johnson told the Times Free Press. "I'm excited about what's been accomplished and more excited about what's left to do."
Johnson is already the third-highest paid superintendent in the state — behind only Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools' director of schools who both make $285,000 a year.
Under Johnson's new contract, he is eligible to the same raises certified staff receive, starting in January 2021, and receives an $825 a month vehicle allowance. Johnson's contract does not include a buyout clause and allows him to be paid for other professional activities such as speaking, writing or teaching, as long as they don't effect his ability to fulfill his responsibilities — a change from his first contract.
Two board members attempted to delay Thursday's vote, with board member Rhonda Thurman, of District 1, motioning to delay the vote until September — after Hamilton County's school board elections — but her motion failed 2 to 7.
Thurman cited state law which creates a blackout period from May to September in which boards are not able to negotiate contracts with superintendents.
"The very reason we are doing this now is to circumvent the law," Thurman said. "The very reason this law was written is to prevent exactly what I was doing tonight."
She also said the feedback she has heard from the public is that they don't want the board to approve a new contract, which was met with laughter from many in the crowd.
Thurman said that she has heard from many constituents who are not in favor of giving Johnson a raise and argued that many who support him are teachers and school system insiders.
Board member Steve Highlander, of District 9, agreed with Thurman and said he was not in favor of an early extension, but chairman Joe Wingate, of District 7, clarified later in the meeting that the board had not violated the original contract's stipulation because both parties agreed to visit the matter earlier than planned.
"It's real easy to sit up here and say there's violation of contract going on. The contract is whatever two parties agree to and those two parties can revisit that contract at any time they want to," Wingate said.
The usually quiet chairman also spoke in support of Johnson.
"For the better part of a decade and a half, if this school system had been involved in a street fight with the other school districts in the state, this school system would have been on life support in the hospital," Wingate said. "
"I use that analogy, because I'm here to compete. I didn't get on this board to get reelected. I don't make decisions to get re-elected. This isn't about an election year. We've got a superintendent that I know knows how to compete. You either get after it or you don't, and we've got a guy who wants to get after it."
Student board member Jeremiah Taylor, a senior at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, said that from his perspective as a student, he considers Johnson a role model.
"I've never seen a Superintendent like this in all my years, as students, we know him," Taylor said. "That leadership, that integrity, that role model, is something we need as students."
Board member Kathy Lennon, of District 2, said she is proud of the work Johnson is doing in Hamilton County.
"I just wanted to be able to say how important it is, I really feel strongly about how leadership matters in Hamilton County," Lennon said. "The school board was charged with hiring a strong leader in 2017 and we did — we hired Dr. Bryan Johnson. This contract is a sign that we want him here."
According to the American Association of School Administrators' 2018-19 School Superintendent Salary and Benefits Survey, the national median base salary for superintendents by district enrollment ranged from $96,750 to $260,000 a year.
Hamilton County Schools is the fifth largest school district in Tennessee, with Metro Nashville Public Schools, Shelby County Schools and Knox County Schools leading it in size.
Hamilton and Rutherford counties usually differ by less than a thousand students — with about 45,570 students enrolled in Rutherford County Schools during the 2018-19 school year, according to the Tennessee Department of Education, compared to 44,370 in Hamilton County.
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.
Adrienne Battle, Metro Nashville Public Schools
Base Salary: $285,000
Student Enrollment: 81,400
Joris Ray, Shelby County Schools
Base Salary: $285,000
Student Enrollment: 106,370
Bryan Johnson, Hamilton County Schools
[Current] Base Salary: $222,000/year
Student Enrollment: 44,370
Bob Thomas, Knox County Schools
Base Salary: $208,000/year
Student Enrollment: 59,220
Bill Spurlock, Rutherford County Schools
Base Salary: $160,224/year
Student Enrollment: 45,570