When the Hamilton County Board of Education hired Dr. Bryan Johnson as superintendent in 2017, and once the public realized what an intelligent, energetic and collegial man had been put under contract to lead its school district, it was easy to be swept away in the thought that he would remain in place for many years.
He would see through long-term strategic plans, he would oversee the 10-year schools facility plan and he would be at the helm when the district reached its goal of being the best one in the state.
But that is not to be.
Johnson, 38, it was revealed in this newspaper last Sunday, will be leaving his post in August to take a job in the private sector with local logistics company U.S. Xpress.
The mean tenure of public school superintendents, according to The School Superintendents Association, is five to six years. Other surveys have put the figure at three to four years.
Johnson landed somewhere in the middle but is the first superintendent to leave the post on his own terms since the city and county school systems merged in 1997.
The last fact in itself says something about both the superintendent and the place in which the system finds itself after four years under his tenure.
When Johnson was hired, the board vote was 5-4, indicating at least four members had concerns about hiring a 34-year educator who had never been a superintendent before. And the process had been fraught with controversy, with the final vote after a nationwide search coming down to a contest between Johnson and interim superintendent Kirk Kelly, whose elevation from acting superintendent a year earlier had been opposed by four members of the board.
But the new superintendent immediately won over most of those who had concerns.
Johnson's hiring meant to many an end to the stagnation that seemed to have crept over the district, a willingness to do things differently, an admission that "the way it's always been done" wouldn't cut it anymore.
Indeed, the new superintendent took us aside at an early event shortly after he came on board and asked us to please continue to be an advocate for change in the district.
Four years later, there has been change. A strategic plan was put in place. Scores at many schools, though not all, have improved. Teacher salaries have been raised. A school facilities report was completed, with a 10-year plan for right-sizing the number of district schools posited. The district's most struggling schools were saved from going under state control with a negotiated compromise. The Future Ready Institutes, learning communities that combine classroom instruction and hands-on apprenticeships in career fields, were created.
By any measure, there has been more support from the business community, better strategic partnerships with foundations and improved buy-in from parents.
Over the last 16 months, the district also has dealt with the global coronavirus pandemic. Though Hamilton County students undoubtedly had a drop-off in retention of material during online classes like those in most public school districts, Johnson shepherded the district through a hybrid system to start the 2020-2021 school year and then boldly through an almost completely in-class system to finish it.
En route, he helped engineer a partnership among the county, city, EPB and numerous foundations for internet service to students in low- to moderate-income homes that served them during online classes and will assist them in future school projects.
Johnson, who leaves the district in mid-August, unquestionably would be the first to say that he was unable to get done everything he would like to have gotten done. Scores at the district's lower-performing high schools, for instance, have been stubbornly slow to rise, and a transportation solution to get students to the schools' Future Ready Institutes has never been realized. He likely would name additional issues.
But, without question, he has put the district on an improved and upward trajectory. The test will be whether that momentum flags with his exit or continues.
Deputy superintendent Nakia Towns will serve as interim superintendent after Johnson's exit. Ironically, she was on a larger list of candidates considered for the job Johnson got in 2017. Soon after his hiring, he brought her aboard his staff. Since then, she has been a finalist for superintendent jobs in Louisiana and Florida in 2020 and 2021, respectively.
We also believe the administration under Johnson includes other candidates who could be considered for the superintendent's job, something that was lacking when he was named to the post. And while we don't advocate a costly nationwide search for the superintendent's replacement, it wouldn't hurt the school board to put out feelers for candidates out of the area who might be interested.
One thing is certain. Because of Johnson's leadership, the job of superintendent at Hamilton County Schools is a much more attractive position than it was four years ago. For that, we can thank the man who has held the post since that time.