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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools, speaks about the district's reopening plan during a news conference at Chattanooga School for the Arts & Sciences on Jan. 26, 2021.

Wow, with all of the glowing praise in local media last week about Bryan Johnson, it almost felt like we lost him. Johnson's announcement that he was resigning as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools dropped like a bomb. His four-year tenure wraps up next month.

But his departure from the helm of our school system should not be viewed as a wake so much as a wake-up call.

Johnson was good at his job and received lots of accolades for it — local, state and national. In four years, he made what most would agree was a tough situation seem doable for the first time in more than a decade in Hamilton County public education.

But at least part of that was because of previous failures by the leaders at the Bonny Oaks headquarters and the inability of previous school boards to make quality hires or craft working relationships.

Look at it this way: If a starving man is offered bread and water, it will feel like a five-course meal. Johnson was more than bread-and-water, of course, but we have to remember our previous plight as we move forward and realize that hunger for better ought to fuel our energy moving forward.

And that starts with the school board.

"We should own it," Tucker McClendon said of the board's chance to embrace a bigger role in leadership moving forward. "We should lead it, and we should put the work in to get the right person. I think the board we currently have is extremely capable of performing a top-notch search . We expect excellence from our employees, and the taxpayers should expect it during this search."

Now we're talking. Forget where it stops, as Calvin Coolidge famously discovered. This is where the buck starts.

Johnson is far from the only individual pushing hope across our county schools. Look around at what thousands of employees accomplished — from bus drivers to custodians to principals — over the past 16 months. Certainly, leadership matters, but the rank-and-file have an equal and perhaps larger role in how well our children learn and grow.

"Everyone in the county has had a hand in turning around Hamilton County Schools," McClendon said. "The board has set its sights directly on the goals of Future Ready 2023, and at the forefront of everything we do those goals are paramount. That will continue and will not change."

McClendon said he and his colleagues are hoping to move "as quickly as possible" and find the right person before the end of the fall semester. But finding the right quality candidate is more important than the calendar.

Time does matter, though. No one wants to lose the momentum that has been built over the past few years because, in a lot of ways, momentum — rather than equity or any other divisive political talking point — is the key word in this conversation.

For the first time in a long time, our schools have momentum, and that energy is delicate.

So moving decisively and wisely could make this the first step in a true rebuilding of our public schools. Failing that, we will be left with a brief glimpse of promise of what could have been.

The quality of our schools — all of them — affects all of us, whether you are the parent of a public school pre-kindergartner, a private school senior or a retiree who wants to live in a community in which residents feel connected to their neighbors.

"This county has had a lot of success but imagine what we could do if we had a public school system that was respected and had proven results?" McClendon said. 'I believe we are on the cusp of really turning around the public schools."

Johnson gave us a chance to realize how much better we can be. Now the board has a challenge — find someone better than he was.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com.

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Jay Greeson
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