When Dr. Bryan Johnson was hired as superintendent of Hamilton County Schools in 2017, he inherited a district with stubborn academic growth over the past decade, a scandal resulting from a horrific assault on players on a high school basketball team, a handful of lawsuits and had a school board torn between an ineffective interim superintendent and an outsider.
The man hired for the same position last Thursday — and all three job finalists were men — will be similarly challenged.
He will take over a district that has improved but faces the challenges of abysmal third-grade reading scores at many elementary schools, the continued lack of significant academic progress at several high schools, the lingering debate over mask efficacy in classrooms, the controversy over teaching critical race theory, and the content of books found in some schools.
In truth, no perfect scenario likely exists for an administrator taking over a large school district in a time fraught with polarization and a pandemic that has colored the educational and wider world over the last 21 months.
Though some disagree, we would argue that Johnson did much to turn around the reputation of the district, which had earned a reputation as an "old boys network." Academics did improve, taxes for education were raised, schools were built and the blueprint for a 10-year facilities plan was proffered.
The then-superintendent said he wanted to have the fastest improving school district in the state, and the district made good on his promise.
Then, four years into his tenure, Johnson, who we would have figured for an education lifer, left for a job in the private sector.
Were the new superintendent to ask us for advice, here's what we would tell him:
— Be congenial. Johnson, from the beginning, seemed to court support and charm the public. He obviously could sense the wariness the public had for the district's reputation and wanted to change that. We recall an early meeting with him where he took us aside and, in so many words, encouraged us to keep the heat on in the need for change — new ways, new methods, trying something different, discarding failed programs — in the district.
— Be honest. Tell the public specifically what data, numbers and tests are saying about the district, its schools, its teachers and its students. Be specific. Admit failures and let the public know the district is taking its problems seriously.
— Be open. Hold regular public forums in each part of the county where parents, students and others can ask questions, and have staff members there who can supply answers or take information and get back to the questioner. Encourage regular joint meetings between the Hamilton County Commission, the funding body for the district, and the Hamilton County Board of Education, which approves the district budget. Such meetings should foster better dialogue between the bodies and improve communication among individuals.
— Be innovative. Many people today believe the standard model of public education is broken. Be willing to scrap programs that aren't working, eschew state or federal grants just to continue employing personnel in areas that recycle dependency, and be bold enough to try pilot programs that offer new ways to get at teaching, learning, testing and administration.
— Be supportive. Teachers today whisper that they're only allowed to teach to the tests. Academic testing is important to measure progress, but make teachers aware that they have your permission to be creative, innovative and — dare we say it? — fun in their classrooms. Make principals aware there is a standard that must be upheld in every school, but allow them to run their schools with as much autonomy as possible and don't micromanage them.
— Be fiscally responsible. Understand your public and your county commission, and know the difference among needing to ask for more money, wanting to ask for more money and not asking for more money. Don't be the superintendent who found $19 million in revenue when the public turned down your desperate plea for more money, as happened here two years ago. Don't be that guy. You may never regain the trust that had been put in you.
Four years from now, the new superintendent, should he still be on the job, will have faced problems some of the same problems Johnson faced when he accepted the job and some we can't even dream of today. He'll have earned every bit of what many will say is an exorbitant salary. Not many local bosses, after all, oversee 44,000 people (plus parents and guardians), plus thousands of teachers, principals, cafeteria workers and administrative assistants.
He'll be in a job where showing improvement can be hard, and people will expect that he should have done it yesterday.
Hamilton County's new superintendent deserves our support, our constructive feedback and our prayers. He'll need them.