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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Former Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Bryan Johnson speaks during a recent news conference, where Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly announced that the city will fund seven positions in seven Hamilton County schools to provide services for students.

In describing the legacy and performance of Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson, one word often arises: vision.

"I think he did well in casting a vision and getting people behind it. There, you can say 'this is what I want to say' and force it, but he didn't do that," Jeanette Omarkhail, Hamilton County Education Association president, told the Times Free Press on Wednesday. "He listened, he encouraged and shared his views, but he also incorporated his team, his leadership, the community. He listened and wove other ideas into what he saw as well."

Hamilton County Board of Education member Tiffanie Robinson said at the board's July meeting that as a board member, she wants to make students and parents feel successful in their education.

"Your leadership made that vision come true, and I know that there are other board members here tonight that had that same vision and same desire," Robinson told Johnson. "So I want to tell you thank you for making the last four years of my life on this board not only worth every single second but making the job of being a school board member and a leader in this community, frankly, really easy."

Photo Gallery

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson through the years

Johnson announced his resignation in July and his last day came on Tuesday, the fourth day of the new school year. He told the Times Free Press that his next steps will be in leadership at trucking and logistics company U.S. Xpress.

As superintendent, Johnson said, his successes included developing career pathways for students, enhancing business partnerships — like the partnership with EPB to provide free internet access for low-income students — and strengthening technology in the district, such as providing one computer for each student.

"We were not a district that was one-to-one — there wasn't even a path to one-to-one — and now every student in grades three through 12 has access to a Chromebook. Not only that, but we were probably the only community in the country that's made sure that every child that's economically disadvantaged will have access to free Wi-Fi for the next decade — we're truly excited about that," Johnson told the Times Free Press in July.

Despite those successes, he said he wished he could have done more across the board.

"I wish we could have accelerated student achievement more, done even more with business and industry," he said. "I wish we could have done more to compensate and support and really pour into our talent."

For Omarkhail, she said the only plan that did not go as well as hoped was a proposed tax increase for 2020 that would have gone toward Hamilton County Schools, ultimately rejected by the Hamilton County Commission in a 5-4 vote.

"I don't think it was failed; I don't think it was a bad attempt. It just didn't work and he moved on from it," she said.

Johnson's announcement appears to follow a national trend of school system superintendents resigning amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to EdWeek. The publication reported listings for superintendent jobs for the period between July 2020 and April 2021 increased 10% compared to listings for the July 2019 to April 2020 period.

Locally, Johnson's departure follows a pattern of superintendencies lasting five years or fewer in Hamilton County Schools.

Kirk Kelly served as interim superintendent from 2016-17 and was a finalist for the permanent role that Johnson took in 2017. Before that, Rick Smith served in the role for five years from 2011-16, and Jim Scales held the position for five years from 2006-11.

Nakia Towns is serving in the interim superintendent role. She was selected from a pool of three candidates a week after Johnson's announcement and has appointed Chief Operations Officer Justin Robertson to the interim deputy superintendent role, according to an community-wide email sent this week.

Ahead of Johnson's last day Tuesday, the Hamilton County Board of Education laid out plans for finding his permanent replacement.

The school board solicited proposals from superintendent search firms on Tuesday and plans to contract with a firm by Oct. 1. Several school board members said they prefer picking a local candidate for the role, while others said they are fine with expanding to a national search if necessary.

Staff writer Mary Fortune contributed to this report.

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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