Minneapolis school chief has overcome a shaky start.
The school board's unanimous vote Tuesday to enter negotiations with Johnson on another contract followed a closed meeting in which it reviewed her performance over the past year.
In that time, Johnson overcame some early missteps and won the goodwill of a board whose members have almost completely turned over since she was hired two years ago.
If the board follows past practice, it will seek a three-year deal with Johnson. If she serves out that contract, Johnson would become the longest-tenured superintendent in Minneapolis since Carol Johnson left in 2003. The board said it wants the new deal negotiated by the end of September.
A summary of the board's evaluation gave Johnson high marks in half a dozen areas. It said board members have confidence in her academic vision and that she has made progress in making the district stronger educationally. Yet the report also noted that student academic gains have been modest.
"Superintendent Johnson has demonstrated tenacity, courage and candor when addressing student achievement, and we look forward to better outcomes as the preparatory work done this year begins to take hold in the classroom," the report said. Board member Carla Bates said that urban districts that register significant gains are marked by "consistent, stable leadership at the top."
The board called on Johnson to improve the district's community links, enhance its competency at dealing with diverse cultures and do a better job at managing enrollment.
Johnson said her goal is to achieve "sustainable and exponential gains," but acknowledged "we still have significant work to do in some areas."
“Of course, I’m excited and overwhelmed,” Johnson said in a brief interview after the board’s action. “I can’t even explain it. It feels surreal. I’ve worked hard and the staff has worked hard to have this opportunity.”
Since 1991, Johnson has worked as a teacher, principal and administrator, moving from districts in St. Paul to Minneapolis to Memphis and back to Minneapolis. In 2006, then-Superintendent Bill Green hired her as chief academic officer and then moved her up to deputy superintendent.
The school board hired Johnson in 2010 without considering others. Six of the eight current members have joined the board since Johnson was hired.
Johnson is paid $190,000 annually, but was awarded only $12,184 of a potential $30,000 first-year performance bonus by the revamped board last year. The decision on her second-year bonus comes later this year.
She's starting the year with plans to charge ahead with two key elements of an academic agenda she hopes will accelerate academic gains and narrow the achievement gap. The district will fully implement the evaluation of all teachers a year ahead of a state mandate and begin to use a more structured curriculum designed to improve consistency of teaching, especially for students who switch schools frequently.
Johnson's annual review followed a year in which she avoided some of the gaffes and learning mistakes of her rookie year. During that first year, she irked the public and board by awarding $270,000 in bonuses to top staffers while teachers were losing jobs. She said she'd close North High, then reversed herself in the face of pressure from supporters of the low-performing school. A management study said she was spread too thin, but the man she hired as her deputy lacked the proper state license.
Now, district enrollment is up. North is enrolling a freshman class of more than 100 students in an academy focusing on arts and communication, using a curriculum devised with an outside consultant. Johnson has revamped the duties of Deputy Superintendent Rick Mills to place him over non-academic departments as he awaits approval of his license.
Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438