Staff photo by Doug Strickland / This photo, taken in June 2017, shows Bryan Johnson speaking to the public during a meet-and-greet in the Board of Education meeting room as members were interviewing candidates for schools superintendent. Johnson would go on to be named superintendent.

It is time to undo the school system merger.

Let the county schools belong to the county and return the city schools to the city. The current arrangement — born of the 1997 merger — is untenable.

Just as we have a county mayor and city mayor — with neither being asked to govern what is not his — so, too, do we need a two- superintendent system. We cannot expect one school superintendent to effectively govern both the differing psychologies, needs and politics of Chattanooga and Hamilton County schools.

We need two school systems and two school superintendents.

Until that happens, we will continue to lose superintendents.

Good, visionary, wise superintendents.

Like Dr. Bryan Johnson.

On Tuesday, with three weeks before teachers return, Johnson, county superintendent since 2017, announced his resignation.

Last year, he was named the Superintendent of the Year for Tennessee.

Now, he's leaving.

I am deeply saddened. Johnson was possibly the best public leader we have, easily the best superintendent in this county's history.

The news hit many of us like a gut punch.

We are grieving. Angry.

Yet not surprised.

Teaching in Hamilton County is hard. Unimaginably, endlessly, ridiculously hard.

I imagine being superintendent is even harder.

Was Johnson simply worn out?

This pandemic has caused many of us to re-evaluate our careers. Look at Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy, who recently stepped down to spend more time with family. No, I don't think he was forced. I think he wisely re-evaluated his life and energy.

Johnson, too, seems to have done some soul- searching. This August, he'll assume a leadership position at U.S. Xpress; our county's best superintendent is moving from education to the trucking industry. From the public realm to the private.

That sends a very, very loud message.

Did we support Johnson and public education?

Or drive him away?

"I'm very sad to see him go," said Karitsa Jones, school board member. "I think the bigger question for us as Hamilton County is, what is it about Hamilton County that we can't keep a superintendent?"

He endured a pandemic — while also getting sick himself — in a county where only one-third of residents are vaccinated.

Tornadoes destroyed schools.

A tax increase for education was defeated. (Five county commissioners voted no, while some 65% of polled residents supported the increase.)

He's a Black man — an educated, powerful Black man — in a county historically opposed to any discussions on equity, racism and color.

He reports to the school board, yet school funding is controlled by county commissioners, thus creating a dysfunctional dynamic: the school board sets policy, while the commission, with little knowledge of education, holds all the money.

And, let's not forget, white county commissioners continue to allow a Confederate general statue to preside outside the courthouse, sending a message to every student, teacher, parent of color and their superintendent.

At U.S. Xpress, Johnson will report to Eric Fuller, the CEO who's emerging as a local leader in the struggle against discrimination.

"As a straight, white man, what I see as positive characteristics of our city can be different than what a gay, Black woman may see. Or someone of Asian descent, someone who is trans or Latino," Fuller wrote in an op-ed. "I have done a lot of listening to others about their experiences this last year, and what I heard made me sad, angry and, at times, confused. I had no idea the pain some people feel in this community due to the belief that they don't have a voice, opportunity or, even worse, are blatantly discriminated against."

I've never heard the county mayor or certain commissioners speak like this.

It's time: undo the merger. (A few years ago, David Jones, who ran for state legislature in 2018, crafted a proposal on restoring a city school system. Email him at

Don't set our superintendent up for failure.

The situation is fragile. Whatever gains we made under Johnson may dissolve. Teachers are distraught.

"So many are ready to walk. Many already have," one teacher told me. "If the nonsense doesn't stop, public education is going to slide backwards. We can't afford for that to happen, but it's time that our communities decide what they want from public education — and to put their money where their mouths are. Dr. Johnson stood in the gap between us and the community more than people realized."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree