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Superintendent Bill Green announced in July that he would leave at the end of the 2009-10 school year, to return to his teaching post at Augsburg College.
The board had planned to announce its formal search process Tuesday, but board chairman Tom Madden said that after talking to national experts and starting the process to hire a search firm, the board decided to name Johnson, 50, as its only candidate.
"The public has told us they want stability, continuity and focus," Madden said. "We are also eager to stabilize the district and move our academic agenda forward."
Johnson, speaking after the meeting, said, "I am just humbled and honored. I'm nervous and excited all rolled into one." She said the board showed by choosing her that it "is very much interested in continuing the groundwork that Dr. Green started."
The announcement comes at a critical time for the district, which faces a deficit of at least $13 million for the 2010-11 school year and is in the process of implementing a citywide downsizing plan meant to deal with years of declining enrollment.
Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said Johnson is the right choice.
"She has been the mainstay of pressing for the academic changes that need to be made in Minneapolis," Kyte said. "That doesn't make her the most popular person all the time, but these are changes that need to happen."
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak also backs the board's choice of Johnson, saying she's played a major role in developing a strategic plan that the district has long needed. "She's tough," he said. "People won't always agree with everything she does. But she's strong and she has vision ... I'm a big fan."
Green, who will have been at the helm for four years by the time he steps down, was largely credited with restoring calm and stability to a district that had been mired in chaos, and setting a strategic path for the district as it stabilized.
Johnson, a native of Selma, Ala., worked in the financial sector until 1991, when she decided to enter education. She was a teacher and principal in the St. Paul Public Schools and was a principal at Hall Elementary in Minneapolis.
She also was deputy superintendent for the Memphis City Schools in Tennessee.
Lynn Nordgren, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said that teachers had expected a wider search for superintendent.
"We thought that would make it a more successful search," said Nordgren, who didn't know that Johnson's selection would be announced Tuesday. "But we are looking forward to working with Superintendent Johnson, so that we can have a strong and viable relationship ... in the days ahead."
The board will hold three community meetings in early February for the public to get to know Johnson.
The Minneapolis school district is the state's third-largest district, with about 32,000 students. Its budget this year is about $650 million.
The district is one of 25 statewide that failed to settle contract negotiations with its teachers by the Jan. 15 deadline, which means the district will have to pay an $800,000 fine.
In December, the St. Paul Public Schools also selected an internal candidate for Superintendent, choosing Chief Academic Officer Valeria Silva to take the post after Superintendent Meria Carstarphen left for the Austin, Texas public schools last summer.
Madden was careful to say Tuesday that the board wasn't announcing a formal decision to hire her, just that she was the single candidate for the job.
A public interview with her is scheduled for Feb. 4, and the board plans to vote Feb. 9 on whether to give her the job.
"We believe that the Minneapolis public schools district is fundamentally on the right track, despite the enormous challenges that lay before us," Madden said.
He called Johnson an "articulate spokesperson for [the Minneapolis schools] in the community" and said that "her leadership is deeply appreciated by many."
Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report Emily Johns • 612-673-7460