Staff file photo by Matt Hamilton / Hamilton County Schools superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson speaks at East Brainerd Elementary School on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021.

In June of 2017, then-newly chosen Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson sat in the front row of the 150-plus-strong audience seated before the Hamilton County Commission as it passed without fanfare a $691.5 million county budget with no tax increase — an increase that was sorely needed for public school needs.

Despite the strong showing of supporters for $24 million in needs identified by the Board of Education, commissioners voted 8-1 to forego the ask, arguing that normal growth in tax revenues and state funding to make up the $425.7 million schools budget would suffice.

Then and quite a few times later in the four years Johnson guided the schools to be named the fastest improving district in the state, our local elected officials kicked the can down the road. Only once in those years did they actually move the needle, voting later in 2017 to approve $100 million (it was a tax increase, but they didn't call it one) for school repairs. The trouble, of course, was that there were at least $360 million in deferred repair needs. Actually, a couple of years later, a professional assessment put that need closer to $855 million.

When Johnson took the job, the school district had gone more than 15 months without a permanent superintendent, and every superintendent before him since the city and county schools merged in 1997 was either fired or left the job under pressure. What's more, the 44,000 students in our schools had seen their worst scores in decades, and the system was under threat to have several schools taken over by the state. The system was also reeling from the horrific rape of an Ooltewah basketball player, assaulted with a pool cue during a tournament outing in 2015.

With Johnson's hire, things began to change.

In July 2017, his starting contract set some goals and performance perks. He would earn a raise of $7,500 if the district boosted third-grade reading, math and science scores by 10 percentage points from last school year's scores, and he could receive additional increases for earning a composite score of a 4 or 5 on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. A score of 4 or 5 means the district posted more than expected academic growth on the state's standardized assessment. The district had not earned a 4 or 5 composite score on TVAAS since 2013.

Johnson forged a deal with the state for joint jurisdiction over five schools and 2,300 students at Brainerd High, Dalewood and Orchard Knob middle schools, and Woodmore and Orchard Knob elementary schools where students mostly living in poverty had struggled for more than a decade to make academic gains. Their progress continued to rank in the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

Two months into his new job, Johnson announced a plan to expand that zone to include what he called an Opportunity Zone to support 12 of the district's struggling schools — those in the Brainerd High and Howard High school feeder patterns. It would include Barger Academy of Fine Arts, Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy, Clifton Hills Elementary, East Lake Elementary, East Lake Middle Academy and Hardy Elementary.

"We've got to move the needle for these schools, and we've got to do it quickly," Johnson said. "And not just do it quickly in a one-time way, but do it in a way that is sustainable over time."

But September would show just what a boulder Johnson would have to push uphill. Student "growth" scores from the 2016-2017 school year came out, and once again our students received the lowest possible composite TVAAS scores, 1s in every category except literacy.

By the time he'd been here six months, Johnson had won board approval to begin recruiting new teachers and teacher mentors, offer early retirement to older teachers, reorganize the central office, revise the school calendar and explore ways to renew the school system's image. But the big news was Johnson's unveiling of a preliminary plan for new "Future Ready Institutes" — small learning programs within different schools partnering with local industry to train students using business, health sciences, advanced manufacturing or other STEM-related learning tracks.

The next Tennessee annual report card found our schools seeing slow, but steady, growth, and Johnson told us schools would strive to get better.

He was right. By September of 2018, we were celebrating 25 of our schools that received top Level 5 honors — up from 12 the year before. And 13 other schools had raised their scores. Some — Brown Middle, East Lake Academy of Fine Arts, Hunter Middle and Soddy Elementary — jumped from a 1 to a 5. The district received an overall composite score of 3 out of 5.

The next year, we learned that Hamilton County schools student growth scores showed 'historic, unprecedented' progress. Our schools achieved a Level 5, the top score.

More than 20 of our schools earned scores of 5 across all areas; 32 schools were designated Reward Schools; 80% of teachers met or exceeded student growth expectations, and in five of eight content areas our school district surpassed the state average. Johnson got his salary bonus, and he donated it, $15,000, to a student scholarship fund named for his mother.

Yes, we still have learning gaps. Yes, most of our students still perform below grade level. But Johnson put us on a right track for the first time in decades. Hamilton County Schools ranked second only to Williamson County in terms of overall student growth for the 2018-19 school year.

He didn't walk on water, but he helped many students who were barely treading water. If he failed us in any way, it was that he decided to leave us. In August he will become the chief of staff at U.S. Xpress, a commercial trucking company.

Bryan Johnson leaves big shoes to fill.